Conrad shaded his face with a hand, looking out over the water. It was glittering so hard it almost hurt his eyes, but it was beautiful, too, a deep turquoise green he’d seen only in travel books. Sometimes when the winter was dragging on in Stallchester, February or March, and the snow was frozen into gargoyle-ish grey-black hunks as the thaw came and went, he would curl up with guides in the bookshop instead of Peter Jenkins books. He had loved to look at the photographs, his nose just inches from the page as he pored over the details. Tiny houses and smiling people and so many different colours in the plants and land around.
It wasn’t until after Uncle Alfred had told him about going to Stallery that he’d realized this was another way of being like Anthea: the whole time, he’d been thinking of places he might go someday, coming at it sideways so even he wouldn’t catch on to what he was wanting.
He bit his lip at that thought. I’m too good at that, he thought. Keeping things from myself.
Misery crept up into his chest like smoke, bitter and dark. But he took a deep breath, instead of sighing like he wanted to, and turned away from the water and back towards the town.
There’s so many things to do here, he told himself, tamping down the misery firmly. That’s why you wanted to come, remember? And you’ll have to go back soon enough. The king won’t wait for long for you to start the next investigation.
He cast a glance up at the hills and took another, calmer breath. He did have things he wanted to do. The hike up to the peak was said to be beautiful, and full of the rare pink flowers that only grew on this island and the next one over. He’d brought his good boots, and his camera, and a pack; he only needed to stop in the town for food and water and he could be on his way. Come on, then, he told himself as cheerily as he could, and turned away from the water.
The place he went to was selling long green strips of something, tied neatly with twine, under a sign with a picture of a pack on it; he bought some of them and some water, and headed up to the trailhead. The strips were salty and thick and good, whatever they were, he decided as he began the climb. He’d come here only a week ago, and already he’d eaten several things he’d never seen before, most of them delicious. It had turned out that he loved to travel, luckier him—his missions for the king had taken him all over the Series Seven and even the Related Worlds in the two years he’d been at work, and he’d thought often how miserable it would be, chasing down scraps of information on the barest hints of whispers, in every situation imaginable, if he hadn’t loved the rest of it.
But he hadn’t been here before. He focused on putting one foot ahead of the other, and looked with pleasure at the landscape. Grasses swayed in the sea breeze and the little houses, plonked down wherever they would fit on the hillside in charming clumps, looked like an illustration from a children’s book. He stopped several times and got his tripod out to take photos, and made his way slowly to the top, eating more of the green strips and waving to fellow hikers every now and then.
Finally he crested a small stone at the top of the path and he was there—“Oh!” he found himself saying, startled with pleasure at the sight before him. The air was misty and warm here up at the top, the view below a soft and muzzy patchwork of the hill-houses with their roof gardens and the little winding streets. The sea was still bright, but more of a soft polished jade than anything glittering from this height. All around him were the pink flowers he’d read about—only they were more than just pink. They were red and orange, too, long streaked petals and a burst of yellow spiky stamen in the center of them that almost took his breath away. This was the fourth island he’d been to this week, but none were quite as striking as this one. It was prettier than any picture postcard, and he drank it in, wanting to press it into his mind in the same way.
Then the tripod came back out, and he climbed from edge to edge, getting everything from a good perspective. He took quite some time trying to find just the right angle to get the flowers in with the town dreamily in the back. He finally thought he had it—though of course he wouldn’t see until the film was developed. Perhaps if the prints were any good, he’d get one framed for Millie to put in—
Drat. He shifted until he was kneeling, and put the lens on his camera, feeling the smoke at the back of his throat again. Drat, drat, drat.
Clearly it was no good, trying to pretend like this. Even when he was thinking of other things—even up here, he was thinking of Christopher and Millie. He couldn’t get away from his own stupid heart, not even across the worlds. It had been like this the last week, too; he could distract himself for a while, even hours, before the feelings came back, just as fresh as they’d been before he’d come.
He closed his eyes and gave into the sigh, finally. I suppose this is what I get for coming to Series Five, particularly, he thought.
He’d never quite forgotten—this was the Series Christopher wanted to run away with Millie to. The place they all would have tried to run away to, probably, if they hadn’t gotten caught by Uncle Alfred in the shop. And every now and then when things were a little awful in Twelve—when things in the castle were too strange and he missed Anthea and Stallchester and Mum and even Stallery—he would close his eyes in bed at night and think about the three of them going off on adventures from island to island on a little boat of their own. Just the blue sea and the blue sky and him and Millie able to manage Christopher together well enough that they didn’t go crazy in between the times when they were in between islands, and Christopher to make them laugh and laugh with his cleverness, and everything warm and clear and happy.
How did it take me so long to realize? he wondered again, rubbing his hands over his face ruefully.
Even at the wedding in the fall, he hadn’t understood. Watching the two of them walk down the aisle, underneath his blinding happiness and helpless smile, he’d felt a hollowness, yes, but he’d thought it was just a general longing. He hadn’t found anyone he wanted to settle with, yet—that was what he wanted. That was all. He’d taken the photographs, and watched every little moment of it. Of course it wasn’t hard to imagine himself in their places when he had to pay such close attention, and it had been easier still, at the time, to ascribe his longing to that.
He’d developed prints for them, of course—and one for himself, just one he liked without being able to say why. He put it in a cheap frame on his desk, directly, after, but then had to go away from his flat on a mission for about a month, and forgot about it. It wasn’t until he came back into his room in the flat after that that he had remembered it—and realized.
People seemed to think Millie was plain, and Conrad wasn’t sure why. He’d never been sure why. It was true that she didn’t look like Fay Marley, all clear cheekbones and long lashes—but Millie glowed in a way Conrad hadn’t seen in many people. He was sure it wasn’t just her past with Asheth. Rather, he thought it was the other way around—that she had been chosen to be an Asheth because it was obvious that something about her was sapphire-bright and special. Her deep brown eyes sparkled, and her face dimpled when she smiled, and she was so there and full of energy and gleam when she was with you. If being at the center of Christopher’s attention sometimes felt like sitting in a hot golden bar of sun, good but so much, being at the center of Millie’s felt like floating in warm water, buoyant and light.
And in the photograph—Millie was looking straight into the camera, beaming with happiness. Incandescent, was the only word Conrad could think of for it. And Christopher, next to her, was bursting with tender pride and love, his hands curled beautifully over her shoulder and part of a helpless smile on his face. The light was hitting his cheek at an angle that made him look almost otherworldly, stupidly good-looking.
Conrad had only taken one look at the photograph when it struck him: a yearning so powerful he could taste it, a want so deep it made his breath catch. And it was so obvious, so crystal clear to him in that moment, that it wasn’t the situation he wanted—it was the people in the photograph. The feeling wasn’t a new one, but familiar; he must have had it for a long time without knowing. It went on and down into him, deep and pure and very very strong.
It was painful. It was terrifying. It wasn’t something he could handle at that moment; he’d gasped out loud, heaving in a breath, and put his arm over his face so he couldn’t see the photo, and dove into bed to sleep.
But the feeling was still there when he woke. He’d turned the photo around and busied himself with mindless errands, but it was still there through the day, and the next, as was a message from the king about his next mission. Conrad had stared at the paper, his heart pounding, and felt so overwhelmed he could barely breathe.
It was then that he had decided that he needed to get away, far away, if only for a bit.
And now here you are, he thought dryly to himself, missing them silly, kneeling on the ground like an idiot. Wishing that things were different, when you know they can’t be. When you know they’re as they’re meant to be—the two of them together.
Frustrated, he stood up and brushed dirt off his knees. Curses to all of this—the beautiful flowers that couldn’t keep his attention, the lovely sea stretching out wide and still somehow lonely, and the ache in his own heart. I’ll go down to the little bridge islands, he thought to himself, frowning. Maybe there’ll be enough to keep my mind from wandering.
But he didn’t have much hope, even as he started to head down towards the town again. The love was there, at the back of and under everything. It was a part of him, it had been there so long. And he didn’t know that there was anything he could do to unbraid it, in the end.
The little bridge islands were like mushrooms, small yellow bases topped with burst of beautiful jungleish green. The local boatman who had pointed them out to him yesterday as a potential spot of interest had said there were many theories about what made them that shape—erosion by the sea, or the Rock Eaters come down from the hills, or tourists stealing bits of the rock for the magic they were said to contain. This accompanied with a stern look, to which Conrad returned a smile he’d been told was disarming in its sincerity. He, at least, had no intention of stealing anything in this Series or anywhere else. He told the boatman he’d have someone from the Castle look into it, too, which had placated him enough to pull out an answering smile and a suggestion for a nice little restaurant he liked nearby.
Conrad thought he might try it for dinner, after he’d walked the islands. The mushroom-tops were connected by a little series of suspension bridges, and you could go quite a ways out if you walked all the bridges. He smiled again as the first one came into sight, shifting his pack off his shoulder so he could get a fresh roll of film out. He’d never seen anything like them before, and though he’d taken several photos when he got to this island yesterday, they hadn’t been in the best light.
He walked the bridges quite slowly, stopping now and then for more photos and telling himself to enjoy himself even under the pull in his heart. He managed it, mostly, even. On a whim, he decided to climb carefully down the side of one of the islandlets near its bridge where there was a strange little dock, to get some pictures of the main island from a different angle. There the wind was hitting him at a different height—on the bridges, the breeze had obscured a lot of sound, but from here, he thought he could here laughter of people on the main island, too, and—
Conrad’s head went up at the suddenly loud sound, like feet pounding towards him. His eyes widened as he caught sight of a figure barreling along towards his island from the main one, swept up in a midnight blue swirl of jacket and pants that had no right being so black or neat. That was the only thought he had time for before the swirl of blue leapt off the edge of the bridge and onto solid ground the next islandlet over. Their eyes met, and Conrad drew in a shocked breath.
“Grant!” Christopher panted out from the bridge, eyebrows drawn down in a great scowl. “What are you doing? I’ve been looking for you for days, and Millie too!”
His hair was swooshing dashingly to one side, touseled and yet perfect, the way Christopher always looked. Conrad felt a familiar snap of exasperation followed by a wave of weary, anxious fondness, and then finally the stony, stinging sadness he had grown so used to in the last few days settling in the pit of his stomach.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he started to say, dully, but Christopher wasn’t stopping coming towards him, the slats of the next bridge slapping and wobbling under his shoes. He came down onto the islandlet and with a fast scramble was at Conrad’s side on the dock. He had to grip Conrad’s arms in order not to slip on the smooth wood, in fact, and Conrad reached out automatically to steady him.
“You fool,” Christopher thundered. Conrad scowled, bracing himself to argue, but—Christopher was dragging him forwards into his arms, pulling him close and holding him tight. It was too tight to be comfortable, really, and still not as close as Conrad found himself wanting. He could feel the painful flush of surprise on his face. He swallowed hard, hands curling a bit into the fabric at Christopher’s waist.
“Christopher, what are you doing here?” he tried.
“We had no idea where you’d gone!” Christopher said, pulling back to glare at him again. “Didn’t you think we’d worry when you didn’t send us a postcard right after your last mission?”
“Oh,” Conrad said, blinking. “Er, no?”
“You always do!”
“I—” didn’t know you had noticed so precisely, Conrad thought, but didn’t say. He made himself let go of Christopher’s waistcoat. “I thought a few days wouldn’t hurt,” he said instead, trying to gather himself together to appear friendly and unaffected by Christopher’s presence. The smile he pulled up felt wan, though, and now that he was standing apart and actually looking at Christopher, he found that his heart was pounding, thudding like a heavy wave against his ribs. Did he have to be so infuriating and so wonderful all the time? What was he even doing, coming here after Conrad? And Millie, too, had he said? None of this was making any sense.
“You thought you’d just go off without telling us?” Christopher frowned further. “I repeat, Grant—Conrad! Didn’t you think we’d worry?”
Conrad blinked again, the ache in his stomach fading a little as the puzzlement in his head mounted. Christopher almost never called him Conrad, “Grant” becoming a sort of Christopher-only nickname after the whole mess at Stallery. Christopher did seem much more worried than he would’ve guessed, though—his hands were hovering over Conrad’s shoulders, smoothing down the material of his shirt, and his dark eyes were fierce, his face almost like a tiger’s somehow, protective.
“I honestly didn’t,” he said. “I mean, I left a note for the king, and I—I would’ve thought anyone who was worried wouldn’t after seeing that.”
“But you didn’t write to us! And of course we worried,” Christopher said passionately. “We look forward to those letters like nothing else!”
Conrad’s chest squirmed with want, and he made himself take a deep breath to think clearly over it. Well, that couldn’t be true—Christopher had to be exaggerating, as he sometimes did when he didn’t get his way. “I’ll know, now,” he said, setting that argument aside for later to focus on the current conversation. “But I’m not contractually obligated to inform you when I go where, you know!” Yes, there it was, a little snap of his own anger—now it was coming, after he’d had a moment to adjust to Christopher’s overwhelming presence. “And I can fend for myself!”
“Yes, well, pardon me, but we’d like to know when you’re safe off on a mission and when you’re in danger,” Christopher retorted. “Of course you can fend for yourself, do you take me for a--? Don’t answer that,” he added darkly as Conrad opened his mouth. “But if you don’t let us know you’re safe when we know you should be, how can we have any confidence you haven’t been, I don’t know, kidnapped or something?”
Conrad snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic! My job isn’t that important, Christopher, and you know it. And I was only going to say, how do you even have time to think about these things when you’re so busy at the castle? And with each other’s company, what do you miss mine for?” Oh no, that had been too bitter, too close to the truth of his realization, and he gasped in a breath in wish that he could take it back. The very last thing he wanted to do, as annoyed with Christopher as he might be for the fatherly scolding right now, was make him realize how painfully Conrad was in love with them. That would make everything so messy and awful.
Christopher’s hands were tightening on Conrad’s shoulders, dragging his mind back to the present. “Idiot,” he bit out, “of course we miss you at the castle! Nothing’s the same—we want you there, too.”
“You can’t possibly!” Conrad said, shifting. “You two are married now.”
“What has that got to do with anything?” Christopher demanded.
“Everything!” Conrad yelled back. Curses, he had been trying to rein it in, but now it seemed to all be tumbling out of his mouth without his consent, threaded painfully from his chest. He closed his eyes heavily for a moment. “You’re the two of you your own little world now,” his mouth went on. “What would you need me in it for?”
“The same thing we need each other in it for!” Christopher said. He uncrossed his arms, frowning, and opened his mouth to say something—but he was interrupted by a sound they both knew well coming from above, a sound like a violin string being stroked back and forth. Their heads swung to the shimmer in the air on the bridge, and Conrad felt his mouth drop open as the air pulled apart like knitting and Millie slipped through from Twelve to Five.
“I sent her a message as soon as I found you,” Christopher muttered. “She’ll be able to make you understand, at least!”
Millie kept her eyes locked on him as she slid down to their level, and when her feet hit more or less solid ground, she leapt, and then her long hair was flying everywhere, getting in Conrad’s mouth and face as she said, “Oh, Conrad, Conrad, we were so worried! We were so worried!”
Conrad’s heart turned over in his chest, and he couldn’t help but pull her close. Christopher had been so angry sounding that he hadn’t thought for a moment—but of course if they were worried, they’d been upset, and he’d made them that way.
And here was Millie, lovely and warm and smelling like sunlight and wind, and Christopher’s face, now that he looked more closely, was clouded with fear, too. His heart gave a pang.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, trying to keep Christopher in it as well by catching his eyes. “I didn’t think you’d notice, honestly.”
She sprang back, her face stricken and creased. “Of course we noticed! We always miss you when you’re gone.” She held him back at his shoulders and gave him a good, long look, frowning into his eyes, before she turned to Christopher with a familiar exasperated look.
“You’ve done it all wrong,” she said crossly. “You didn’t even explain, did you?”
Christopher leaned back and went haughty and a bit vague in reply, and Millie just sighed. Conrad’s heart ached again at the sound of it, so familiar and such a part of what he wanted—the whole mess of the two of them, all of it, wild and perfect—he had to cross his arms to hold himself in and keep it together.
“I was just trying to tell him,” he said to Millie, “that I didn’t expect you to come after me, or I’d have sent you a note, too. But I needed—I needed some time to myself, that’s all. I just needed a bit of a break after the last mission before my next one, and the king’s said I can take a break anytime—” drat, he was rambling, and Millie, lovely Millie, was nodding seriously along with every point.
“Of course,” she said softly when he broke off. She put her hands over his. “Conrad, we’d never want you to feel like you had to report your every move to us. We were just—surprised, and afraid, when we didn’t hear from you. And I’m sorry if we made you feel like we didn’t trust you or anything like that, we were only worried.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, mouth dry. “I still don’t—I mean, I really didn’t know you’d be so worried. I’m—still not sure why—”
“Conrad,” she said, so gently. Her eyes were filled with something soft he couldn’t name, and she smiled her dimpled smile at him. She squeezed his hands between hers. “Can I tell you why were so worried? Why Christopher could barely get a word out to explain, between being fearful for you and relieved he’d found you?”
“Yes,” Conrad whispered.
“We miss you dreadfully in the castle. More dreadfully than we’ve missed anyone before but each other, either of us. And it took us a long time to puzzle it apart, but we finally figured it out.
“We were going to wait until the next time you visited to say anything, but—we feel the same way about you as we do each other, Conrad. We care for you very deeply and we don’t think of you as only—as only a friend. We were hoping that perhaps you might feel the same.
“And so we worry about you more than friends would, which is maybe wrong of us, because you’re so smart and thoughtful and can get your way through anything, but you know—you know how it is, when there’s a person you—well—and you’re afraid for them every moment anyway because they’re so wonderful? That’s how it is with you.” She paused and took a breath. “That’s why we were so worried. I hope you’ll forgive us, and—perhaps—perhaps tell us if you feel the same? And come back to Twelve with us for a bit to talk about it? Otherwise we can go away, and leave you.”
There was a long moment of silvery silence, just the three of them and the ocean breeze and Conrad’s ragged breath drawing up in want.
“I’m sorry?” Conrad said faintly, reeling, feeling like he might fall over. “You—you feel about me the way you feel about… ? But… what could you possibly be missing?”
“It doesn’t feel like enough,” Christopher said back firmly. His dark eyes were blazing with feeling, when he looked at Conrad, and Conrad had to catch his breath from the depth there. “No, Conrad, it’s gotten worse since you’d gone and we know it isn’t getting any better. We’re missing you, and we need you. That’s what I was trying to say earlier. Trust Millie to have it right, of course.”
“I—“ Conrad said, blinking. Hope was straining in him like something golden and huge, and a helpless smile was starting to creep onto his face. “I’m sorry, just—you want me?”
“Very much so,” Millie said, smiling her sparkling smile again. “We’ve missed you awfully since you left, and after the wedding, well—it felt hollow, somehow. It was so obvious, once we figured it out, but it took quite a while. I was so quiet and upset while I was trying to get it. And Christopher—oh, Conrad, you know how he gets! Asheth, you should have seen him, moping around, going all Byronic and brooding on staircases and balconies.”
“You were moping too,” Christopher said pointedly, raising one fine black eyebrow.
“Sensibly,” she shot back at him, sniffing. “Unlike some of us, I thought about what I should do about it.”
Christopher, smiling now, said, “Oh, hush,” and put his arm around her. Conrad breathed in this new world and found himself unable to stop breathing it in, so happy.
“I love you,” he blurted out. “Er, both of you. Just, no one’s said it, yet.”
Millie turned, her face bright and joyous, and swept him into a hug, and Christopher—Christopher smiled, looking so happy, and leaned over and kissed Conrad just like that. His mouth was warm, and the hand he slipped over the plane of Conrad’s shoulder was warm, too, sending a heavy, good shiver down Conrad’s back. He felt Millie turn her face into his neck and kiss him there, too, which made his face and hands go hot.
“Um,” he said as they pulled away a bit. He knew he had to be grinning madly at them from the way his face hurt. “Do we have to go back right away? Only, there’s a beautiful hike around here, with these flowers you wouldn’t believe. I’d like you to see it, if there’s time.”
“Yes,” Millie said, grinning back. “I think there’s all the time we want to make, now.”