Arrietty awoke that morning to a loud crash as Peagreen jolted out of their bed with a strange, stiff-limbed jerk. At first, she thought something must be dreadfully wrong-- perhaps he was having a fit or a spider had managed to climb into their home and attack him. But looking around rather frantically, she saw no spider or any other intruder. And when she looked back she found Peagreen sitting with his legs splayed on the floor, watching her with his eyes bright and alert, something altogether uncanny about his expression.
Suddenly aware of her unclothed state-- it had been warm enough last night when she and Peagreen settled down to sleep, and it was long past a time when either of them felt any need for modesty around the other-- Arrietty pulled the sheet up her chest and peered tremulously down at him. "Whatever is the matter?" It occurred to her that perhaps she had done something wrong, to upset him so. Hesitantly, she voiced that thought, hoping that Peagreen would correct her or laugh in that way he had when she was being silly.
Instead, he kept watching her. She stared back, a thought stirring in her mind. The angle of his head and the lack of reaction on his face did not call to mind Peagreen's friendly manner or even his anger. It called to mind Spiller, as did that familiar silence.
"Spiller?" she asked. She was hesitant because of course such a thing was ridiculous to contemplate. She had never heard of someone being put in the wrong body. And while, of course, she hadn't heard of everything, she had seen quite a lot in her short life. And she had met a lot of people, as well as human beans. Surely she would have heard about it from someone.
At the sound of the name from between her lips, the person in Peagreen's body let out a low breath, like the gasp of an injured animal, and all the doubts in Arrietty's mind fled. No matter that she had not heard of such a thing; this could only be Spiller. She flung the blanket aside and threw herself onto the floor beside him, again unashamed of the state of herself. She stopped short of touching him, for Spiller did not always like to be touched, and she did not want to scare him.
"You're here, in our home," Arrietty said, feeling rather inane. Even now, she did not always know how to talk to Spiller when his silence covered emotions more volatile than curiosity. "You are in Peagreen's body, which is quite strange," she added, because she would want to know.
As she said this, a terrible thought occurred to her. If Spiller was in Peagreen's body, surely Peagreen was in Spiller's. And Spiller's body could be anywhere; Peagreen did not know how to survive with that wild grace Spiller had. Spiller belonged in the wild; he was a creature of it. Peagreen was an Overmantel. Arrietty made a sad little sound and stared at Spiller. She felt cold, suddenly, and had to turn to pull the blanket off the bed and wrap it around her.
Spiller had learned how she liked to be comforted, though he did not often deign to offer his shoulder or the touch of a hand unless it was to be the prelude to something altogether more intimate. And now, caught up in what must be a shocking experience for him as well, he made no move towards her. Arrietty felt very alone, in that moment. She struggled to compose herself: she blinked back tears and caught the few that escaped on the edge of the blanket before she decided that she ought to get dressed.
She struggled into her underthings as Spiller watched, his gaze sharp. He still had not moved from the strange sprawl he'd fallen into. "Do you mind," Arrietty snapped, then, immediately afraid he would vanish, held a hand out to him. "No, I mean--" She fell silent. She could think of nothing to say, and Spiller's expression remained the same. He seemed to understand that this was difficult for her as well. "Where is Peagreen?" she asked, emboldened by his acceptance. "If he's in your body, you must know."
Spiller did not answer right away, and for a desperate moment Arrietty feared he would not answer at all. Still, she would fling herself atop him and hold him in place until he told if it were necessary. His tongue flicked out over his lips, just a brief hint of pink. "I was coming here."
"Oh," said Arrietty. "Were you very close?"
Spiller pushed himself up with an echo of that familiar shift into motion that always made Arrietty's breath catch in her throat. The grimace that followed was less familiar, as was the stumble backwards until he could support himself against the wall. It seemed to Arrietty that Peagreen's leg had taken him by surprise.
"We can fetch Timmus," said Arrietty. "He will be able to find Peagreen even if he's far away." The thought of Timmus venturing out alone made her shiver a bit, reflexively, so she hastened to add, "and of course I shall accompany him," though she was loath to leave Spiller on his own in this state. As she said it, she imagined what it would be like, venturing out once more into the wilderness with fearless Timmus by her side. It was a wonderfully heady thought.
All at once, Spiller seemed to relax, his body melting back against the wall and Peagreen's eyes closing. Is this it? Arrietty thought. Have they returned to their proper bodies? But Spiller's rough words emerged from Peagreen's mouth. "No need. He knows the way from there."
"Oh," said Arrietty again, feeling at a loss. She would not be waking Timmus; she would be staying here. Normally, awakened unexpectedly from sleep, she would go borrowing or practice her writing. Either seemed rude, with Spiller there under such unusual circumstances, so she instead sat on the bed and patted the seat next to her imperiously. At Spiller's disdainful look, she withered a bit before sticking her chin up again. "You should sit down here," she said, "so that I can rub your leg. Peagreen's said before that it helps."
Spiller made a false start before walking over to the bed with his jaw gritted. Arrietty watched his face and marveled: she had known Peagreen's leg caused him distress, but he had more grace than Spiller. Spiller had been wounded before, as well, but Arrietty had never seen him walk quite like this. Perhaps it was the newness of Peagreen's weight adding to the strangeness of it all. Spiller had never outgrown his childish thinness, and not a spare inch of fat clung to his body despite the rich meat that made up his meals. Peagreen had a more comfortable borrower build and a softness to his skin, and he had grown taller while Spiller had remained close to Arrietty's height.
When Spiller was arranged on the bed to Arrietty's satisfaction, she pushed up Peagreen's nightshirt and began to knead her fingers into the muscle. Spiller tensed for a brief moment before letting out another audible breath and giving himself over to her ministrations.
She had only been at her task for a short while when she became aware of someone else in the room. Arrietty looked into the corner and saw Spiller there. Of course, it was not Spiller himself, but the sight was both so familiar and such a relief that a radiant smile spread across her face. "Peagreen!" she exclaimed.
Spiller's face normally stayed within a certain range of expression. Arrietty and Peagreen both had grown accustomed to reading his face and posture, but one had to look for the most minute crease of a brow or flick of a mouth. What would be on other borrowers an expression of wry resignation, therefore, looked out of place on Spiller. When he moved towards them, he, too, moved with a curiously awkward gait.
"I see you've found my body," Peagreen said with some humor. He stopped just short of the bed and looked down at his hands. "Right. Spiller, your body is going to the bath."
Spiller did not take the same enjoyment from cleanliness that Arrietty and Peagreen did, but he could be coaxed into a firm scrub now and then. Under the usual circumstances, though, Spiller bathing and joining them in bed would have been a prelude to a very different sort of mood, and Arrietty's thoughts turned in that direction very suddenly. She felt herself flush and hoped that they wouldn't notice.
Spiller's gaze settled on Arrietty, and he nodded once. To Peagreen? To her? Arrietty ducked her head as her skin heated even further.
Peagreen smiled, one of his warm polite smiles; it made Spiller's face almost unrecognizable. But he didn't say anything, and the silence settled Arrietty more than words would have. Peagreen walked awkwardly behind the cloth division, to the teacup Arrietty had procured months ago, and Arrietty returned to her self-appointed task with vigour.
When Spiller caught her hands in his, she was surprised by the delicacy of the touch. Spiller could be gentle, and he could accomplish tasks that required attention and the most minute details. But the strength in every gesture that Arrietty had felt innate to his being was gone in that gesture, left behind in his body where Peagreen now resided.
There was something strange about his expression as he held her hands, something that Arrietty wished she could read but could not in Peagreen's too-familiar features. "Did I hurt you?" she asked, overcome again by it all. Strange, how even in the wrong body Peagreen's presence comforted Arrietty and made her feel at ease with everything. Stranger still how a different body made Spiller more wild and unreachable in ways that made Arrietty long to pull him in close so that she could breathe his air.
Spiller made no answer; he and Arrietty stayed frozen like that for some time before he abruptly let go and lurched to the thumb of the bed. The bed was an oven mitt that had by some coincidence been dropped outside. Arrietty and Peagreen had dragged it inside together and cleaned it up. The former bed had only fit two borrowers very cosily nestled together-- the oven mitt bed allowed Spiller his space when he came to visit and provided more room for other activities besides. Arrietty felt helpless as she watched Spiller settle on his side on the thumb, far away from her.
The silence had grown rather awkward, in Arrietty's estimation, by the time Peagreen returned. Not only had he scrubbed the dirt off of Spiller's skin, he had dressed in Peagreen's own clothing. Whether from amusement or relief at his return, Arrietty felt a laugh bubble up out of her at the sight of Spiller in proper clothing too long for his legs and arms, the sleeves rolled up like a child.
Peagreen looked abashed for a moment before he, too, laughed. "How else were we to get him properly clothed?" he said. He glanced over to include Spiller in the tease, and one of Spiller's sharp, fleeting grins appeared.
Yes, that was definitely relief. Arrietty let herself sprawl on the bed as Peagreen sat on the edge between her and Spiller.
"Has this ever happened to you before?" Peagreen asked. He tipped his head back so that he was looking upside-down at the thumb where Spiller had curled. "No, I don't imagine it has. You were never very close to anyone."
Spiller blinked slowly, but Arrietty forestalled any response by bursting out with a cry of her own. "Do you mean you know what this is?"
Peagreen looked back at her with surprise. "You don't?"
Arrietty felt a bit waspish, as she sometimes did when the other two brought up her naïveté. It was hardly her fault that her mother and father had raised her in solitude for so many years. Peagreen and Spiller had lived lives that most borrowers would consider unusually lonely, but in these matters, they always seemed to know more than her. She felt it especially unfair given that she was the only one of the three of them who borrowed traditionally with any regularity.
There were more important things to worry about now, and so Arrietty swallowed her frustration and shook her head. Peagreen's eyes grew distant as he remembered. "It happened to the borrowers who raised me, once. I don't think it's common, but it was known back then." With some amusement, he added, "Perhaps I should add that to my book."
Spiller shifted, rolling up with a greater ease this time. Arrietty could read the question in his eyes because it mirrored her own. "How long does it last?" she asked for the both of them.
"A week, perhaps." Peagreen's voice shaded into apology. Under the twinned gazes of Peagreen and Arrietty, Spiller tensed. His mouth twisted downwards.
The silence stretched taut between the three of them. Spiller rarely stayed more than a day at a time, even now that they'd settled into more of a routine. The longest he had stayed was three days, one of which he had been taken by a fever so deep that Arrietty and Peagreen had feared for his life. And still, two days after it had broken, Spiller had vanished, leaving them to worry still more until he appeared in the garden six days later looking healthy once more and untouched by the experience. A week spent here would be like trapping him in a cage, and trapped animals rarely look kindly on the one who traps them.
By some unspoken accord, they all pretended to sleep, after that, though none of them did. The words a week rubbed raw at all the worries Arrietty had thought herself long over, and she would find no comfort in Peagreen's arms with Spiller so quiet and distant while so close to her.
When Arrietty rose in the morning, Spiller-in-Peagreen's-body was nowhere to be found. Neither Arrietty nor Peagreen had felt or heard him leaving, despite the clumsiness of his movements that Arrietty had witnessed. She searched all around the hidden corners, then gave in and put on her dress so that she could search outside as well.
She suggested to Peagreen that he could help look, now that he had Spiller's strength and stamina, but Peagreen shook his head and stayed with his paintings. "He might forgive you for coming after him, but he has no use for me right now," Peagreen said. He had a way of laying things out like that, as though all the secrets of the Spiller's mind were there in Peagreen's hands. Arrietty envied him that knowledge sometimes. But this time, she thought what it would be like to know someone you loved did not want to see you, and she wrapped her arms around Peagreen's chest from behind, instead. She pressed her ear between his shoulderblades and listened to him breathe for a moment. He smiled at her afterwards, the expression still unsettling in daylight.
Arrietty found Spiller in the vegetable garden, talking quietly to Timmus. Timmus looked excited, rather than upset, and Arrietty wondered if the Hendrearys had experienced such a thing before. Spiller and Timmus both turned and watched her approach, Timmus swinging his hand enthusiastically over his head in greeting.
With Timmus there, Arrietty could hardly broach the subject in the way she wanted to. But as she walked among the plants, she kept an eye on Spiller. He appeared to be teaching himself to shoot again, which Timmus loudly found amusing until Spiller grew cold and quiet and Arrietty hurriedly pulled Timmus away to help with the gathering. Still, even in a body untrained with such a device, Spiller was a better shot than Timmus. He no longer had the deadly accuracy that Arrietty had always admired, but hardly any of his shots went wide, and he had the ability to focus that Timmus lacked. Arrietty said as much, in passing, and privately thought that Spiller learning how to move in Peagreen's body in so short a time was impressive as well. But she didn't say that part aloud, as she was afraid Spiller would get angry or take it as encouragement to run off.
After a few hours, Arrietty made her excuses and slipped away to her parents, where she confessed the basic situation. She made no mention of Spiller and his space on the bed, and she tried to hide the enormity of her feelings in this matter: she had no way of knowing if her parents suspected, but she certainly wasn't going to draw attention to it. As far as the borrowing world was concerned, she was Arrietty Overmantel, wife of Peregrine Overmantel, and if Spiller was perhaps a little closer to them than most, that could be explained by the similarity in their ages.
Homily made sympathetic little sounds, her eyes wide, and Pod admitted gruffly that he knew such a thing was possible. Arrietty folded herself into her mother's embrace and tried not to feel nettled by her father's words. It isn't as though knowing would have changed anything, she told herself.
Homily smelled of warmth and flowers, as she always did these days, and Arrietty felt a bit stronger when she at last sat up on her own again. Poor Spiller and Peagreen, not to have a mother and father to come to when they needed comfort. She resolved that she would be strong for both of them. She also resolved that she would borrow something nice for her parents later, when Peagreen and Spiller were back in their own bodies. Neither Pod nor Homily were young anymore.
The next day, after another long and restless night and another morning punctuated by the knowledge that their third had slipped away without notice, Arrietty sought out Spiller again. Timmus was not there this time. Spiller sat under a Brussels sprout, digging his fingers into his leg in imitation of what Arrietty had done for him the night before.
She sat beside him without speaking for a moment. Silences with Spiller were like conversations with other borrowers: some silences were horrible and said too much, but most were comfortable. It would be nice if we didn't have to talk at all, she thought. But for something this strange, she wanted the certainty of words.
"How hidden is your boat?" she asked first.
Spiller shrugged. The motion jerked Peagreen's clothes oddly. "It's fine for a week."
Arrietty hadn't expected him to talk about it so easily. She took a moment to collect herself before she pressed onwards. "I think Peagreen means to stay inside all week and do nothing but paint." She laughed, the sound a bit forced. "You could come borrowing with me, if you like. I know the ways that work best for Peagreen's leg."
Spiller grunted. "He doesn't come outside much."
"Not recently," Arrietty agreed. She tried again. "I think you should stay here for the week. It wouldn't do for him to wake up in a strange place."
Spiller was silent for so long that Arrietty feared she'd said something wrong again. "He can do more than you think," he said finally. He sounded like Peagreen, in that moment, so sure of the other and Arrietty felt a wave of dizziness hit her.
"Well," she said, "he won't, then." The dizziness left, and she felt tired, instead. "I don't like to think of him in a strange place surrounded by wild animals and human beans because he has to be. You can't do that to him!"
Spiller watched her, his gaze steady and bright, and Arrietty wished that she could read his expressions in Peagreen's face the way she could read Peagreen's in Spiller's. The wind came by and blew strong enough that Arrietty grabbed onto a bending stalk and took Spiller's hand as well. Her heart beat a little faster at the way his hand turned easily in her grip so that his fingers could wrap around hers in turn.
When the wind died down, Arrietty found herself in disarray and still holding Spiller's hand. "Or," she suggested on an impulse, "you could stay here for us. Not because of Peagreen. Just stay with us because you like." It was a silly notion, of course, and she almost dropped her hand from his in the embarrassment that followed on the heels of that naked emotion.
Could feelings be as much of a cage as circumstance? If Spiller were to be trapped in one or the other, which would he prefer? Arrietty had known from very early on that to pin Spiller down in one place permanently, despite her childhood longings, was to take away everything that made him Spiller. But surely one week, out of the entire year, where all three of them could be happy together, before Spiller went off into the wild again…
So lost in her own thoughts was she that she almost missed Spiller's grin. It sat awkwardly on Peagreen's face, and it vanished before Arrietty could blink. It could have meant anything, and Spiller offered nothing to accompany it. Arrietty had never been one to give up easily, though, and so she looked around to make sure nobody was watching before leaning in and pressing a gentle kiss to Spiller's mouth. He tasted like Peagreen, of course, and Arrietty drew back quickly.
Spiller raised his hand to her face in a familiar gesture made strange by the way his fingertips were soft, now, an artist's hands instead of a hunter's. He stared into Arrietty's eyes with an intensity that took her breath away, for so long that she thought her heart might leap out of her chest. When his hand dropped, Arrietty tried not to be disappointed. After all, it would be very dangerous indeed to let this silent conversation continue where anyone could see. But she felt reassured and steadied. Spiller spoke in actions, and this one was as bold as any flowery declaration of love, Arrietty felt.
She left Spiller outside with the hope that her departure would feel like trust rather than abandonment. She thought it would feel like trust: Spiller was not one for whom abandonment held a threat the way it did for Arrietty. But she worried sometimes, because Spiller and Peagreen were such different people with such different needs. Loving Spiller was a bit like flinging herself down a pipe gushing water-- she had to hold her breath and trust she was going the right direction because swimming back was never an option. Loving Peagreen was like wrapping herself in warm blankets in the middle of winter, cosy and steady and easy.
Peagreen had a brand new picture to show her when she returned. The lines shook and the beetle looked blurry and indistinct. "Spiller's hands don't shake when he holds a bow," Peagreen explained with some ruefulness in his tone, "but he finds it very hard to follow a single line."
Arrietty sat down all at once as she was overwhelmed by an unexpected feeling. She had thought things resolved by Spiller's gesture in the gardens, and here she sat, dizzy again with the force of it. She found herself wanting to tell Peagreen that Spiller's body shouldn't be inside painting pictures. She wanted to tell Peagreen that Spiller's body could climb bushes and run forever, that Peagreen could explore everything if he so wished it. This week wouldn't last forever, shouldn't Peagreen make the most of it?
But nipping at the heels of those unspoken words was a sudden sinking feeling that she wished the exchange of bodies had gone differently, and everything she had said to Spiller or thought since that first moment became twisted and selfish. She tried to reexamine everything at once and failed. She imagined herself telling Spiller to be careful, not to go off because she didn't want to wake up in a strange place all alone. But she couldn't, because she suddenly wanted desperately to have that, to wake up alone in the woods, to fight back to where she belonged, to feel soil under her feet again, and she began to cry a little.
Peagreen seemed taken aback. "Arrietty? Was it something I said?" He attempted humor. "Was the painting that bad? You can tell me, it won't hurt my feelings."
Arrietty shook her head and pressed her hands to her face until the tears had stopped. She was not in the habit of lying to Peagreen, so after she took a moment to compose herself, she came right out with it: "I think I'm bored here."
Peagreen took her sudden declaration with equanimity. "I've been worried about that," he admitted. "Your parents and I--" and he said this with a casual sort of arrogance-- "have always worried about your dangerous hobbies, but when you decided to settle down…" He trailed off with a lost sort of sound.
"When I…?" Arrietty prodded. She ignored the first part of Peagreen's statement; he had never understood, and to push him on it would be inviting argument.
"You've stopped being happy here," Peagreen said finally, slowly. The words teased out of him like threads being worked free from a knot. "You're content, some of the time, and for most borrowers that would be enough. But you've always been different, Arrietty, and that's what I like about you." He laughed a little. "I don't think I would like you half as much if you weren't you."
"I could never be anyone else," said Arrietty in a confused voice. She twisted her hands in her skirt like a small child and thought. "I don't want to leave, Peagreen, and I know you-- you don't want--"
Peagreen combed his hand through Spiller's hair. "Does that have to be the choice? Either you leave me or you're not happy? That doesn't seem like a choice anyone should have to make."
Arrietty thought wistfully of Spiller's teakettle that time so many years ago, of walking through the wilderness with her shoes off. She thought of staying here in the warmth and security and long-desired stability that her parents had longed for. She had no desire to make the choice, either, but hadn't she already made it by staying here in the first place?
The rest of the week should have dragged out slowly, as Spiller grew more and more distant and spent more and more time outdoors in the gardens. He grew accomplished enough with the bow by the end of it that he succeeded in scaring off a rat, and his look of grim accomplishment on Peagreen's normally placid face made Arrietty clap her hands in delight. He also took to climbing the ivy just as avidly as Peagreen had, and sightings of him with his feet flat on the ground became rare.
For the most part, though, the week went by too fast, because Arrietty was lost in her own head. It felt a bit like walking underwater, or like how she imagined walking underwater would be. Or maybe she had been walking underwater the whole time and was only now coming up for breath and finding it difficult to remember how to breathe again.
Peagreen left her alone, for the most part, though he of course slept beside her at night and went borrowing with her when Spiller refused. She would never have found anyone else like him, she thought. Even if she had found a dozen sensible borrower boys her age, or a hundred, none of them would have been Peagreen. And none of them would have been Spiller, either.
The shift back into normality came and passed in an instant. Arrietty was awake this time, and all she saw was a brief moment where both Spiller and Peagreen tensed at once, then relaxed again. Then, all at once, Peagreen laughed quietly and Spiller started to peel off the clothes Peagreen had dressed his body in. Fortunately for all concerned, they were alone in Arrietty and Peagreen's home.
When Spiller stood naked in the middle of the room, Peagreen reached for him, and Arrietty's stomach did a strange flip as she realized that she had not seen the two of them touch once the entire week. She watched the flickering light from the candle stubs play over Spiller's skin as Peagreen pulled him into a hungry kiss. The two of them turned to her as one, bright and playful, all the sorrows of the previous days forgotten, and she went to them to briefly forget her own.
Afterwards, Peagreen and Arrietty curled together on the bed as Spiller dressed in his freshly washed furs. The scene was so like the many others before it that Arrietty's heart twisted and she made a soft sound.
Spiller paused and looked over at her. His expressions were readable again, and Arrietty could plainly see worry written in the set of his face. She tried to reassure him that everything was all right with a smile; she did not want to keep him trapped any longer.
But Peagreen spoke, startling both of them. "You're not going to be long, are you?" His words might have sounded casual, but his eyes and the press of his mouth told how serious he was.
"Might be," said Spiller. He pulled on his vest and tilted his head in Peagreen's direction. He was listening.
Arrietty realized what Peagreen was doing with his next words. "Would there be room for a friend to travel with you?"
"Peagreen," she said, feeling light enough that the tiniest breeze could have blown her away and desperately in love.
Spiller looked between them, searchingly, and then grinned. "Hurry up and get dressed," he said to her. He picked her dress up off the floor and threw it at her. "We haven't got all day."
"We haven't got any of the day," Arrietty felt compelled to say. "It's night." But she struggled into her clothes with haste, still overwhelmed by it, until doubt crept into her mind and made her pause. "Are you sure? You've never…" invited me, she swallowed.
Spiller's responding look said that he had never done anything he did not want in his entire life and that this offer was no less genuine because Peagreen had offered it for him. On the bed, Peagreen laughed.
"Go on," he said in a fond voice. "You can tell me of your adventures afterwards. Spiller is always reluctant to give details, and I'll need a new book to write when this one is done."
Arrietty felt so overwhelmed by love that she had to kiss him. The angle was awkward, as she had to kneel to reach his mouth, but they managed with some shifting. Spiller waited for her in the other corner of the room, his usual haste gone. Arrietty's heart sang out an even stronger song. "I'll come back," she said to Peagreen. Then, greatly daring, she reached out and took Spiller's hand in hers.
I can have it all, she thought. I don't have to choose. It all seemed so simple now. Perhaps it would get complicated later, but perhaps it would not; for now, she let herself laugh as she followed Spiller out into the wilderness, towards the adventure her heart had always longed for.