It all ends happily- too happily for Jacques. Jacques only finds what others would call pleasure in chewing up and spitting out misery. He is content only when he can cast the dark cloud of his all-consuming angst upon others. This… gaggle of marriages and reconciliations and returns leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. It is not a bitterness he is comfortable with. And so. He leaves before the bitterness takes over and tries to make him smile.
“Stay,” the Duke tells him, his eyes sparkling with newfound power, “dance with us.”
Dance with me, he means. He has always meant too much to Jacques. That meaning is another reason why Jacques leaves. He has to. His heart hurts with the lost possibilities, but he welcomes the pain.
“I have no stomach for dancing, nor have I the hands for love,” Jacques says. He turns to the dark trees that surround the clearing.
“Still,” the word catches him at all his weakest points, “stay.”
Jacques doesn't have the breath for a response. He throws one last wild look to the man he pined after for too long, the man who was finally offering everything he had ever wanted, he memorizes the lines in his face, the shape of his eyebrows, the curve of his lips, the fog of hair around his head, he internalizes it all, and he runs away.
The trees swallow him. Their bark is scarred with love letters and their branches sway with his passing. They have been standing longer than Jacques has been running from his heart. They will remain long after he loses the strength to hide. He pants with the effort. He runs. He runs and runs and runs and runs until he is convinced there should be no more forest to run through. It continues, as if the trees are running with him. Perhaps, they, too, are better at protecting their hearts than they are at sharing them.
At last, when Jacques has pushed his legs and lungs to their absolute breaking point, he stumbles. His feet connect with something solid. Something warm. Something alive.
Suddenly, his world widens. There are more sounds in his space than just his own wheezing. Sobs rend the air, ripping holes in the serenity of the sleeping forest.
Jacques collects himself, and scrambles to a standing position. There is a man lying prostrate in front of him. He continues to weep, as if he has not been disturbed at all by Jacques’ graceless fall. Perhaps his grief is too powerful to acknowledge the presence of more grief. Sadness. Loss. That, Jacques can understand.
The man continues to wail, his broad shoulders shaking with each intake of breath and exhalation of tears.
Something breaks in Jacques. He rushes forward to this wreck of a man, gently putting his hand on the plane of his shoulder. This shakes the other man out of his tantrum. He turns to Jacques, his eyes red and wild. He is the exact and spitting image of the Duke.
“Duke-?” Jacques begins. His hair is too dark and his face is too thin, but the words are already out there.
“Duke? I was… but I took that title wrongly. Forcefully. Now. I have nothing. Nothing. What are titles but words?” his voice is sharper than his brother's, but they share a regal inflection. Even in the madness of grief, it is clear this man once commanded worlds.
“And what are words but empty sounds?”
“And what are sounds but breath with more?”
“And what is breath but a futile fight against the grave?” Jacques puts his other hand on former-Duke Frederick's other shoulder. He kneels, putting himself on even ground with him. He looks deep into his eyes. Tears still stream from them.
“Have you… have you seen my brother?” Frederick asks.
“Yes. He is happy. His daughter is returned to him, and she is married.”
“And my daughter?”
“Also married. She seems...happy, as well.”
“Happy to have parted from me, I'm sure.”
“I couldn't say. Happiness is not my area of expertise,” Jacques cannot help himself and he reaches, cautiously, delicately, reverently to brush the most recent tears from Frederick's eyes. He stills as Jacques's fingers brush his cheek, and then he leans into the touch. They sit like that for one precious, suspended moment, and then-
“Why were you running?” Frederick asks, still connected precariously to Jacques, whose fingers tremble in response.
“Why were you weeping?”
“I asked you first.”
“I don't believe in straightforward answers.”
“Maybe you just haven't been asked the right questions.”
They are still touching. Between any other men, it would have grown odd, uncomfortable, many moments ago, but they cling to each other like they are the only solid ground in an ever shifting sea.
“Can I-” Jacques feels the words catch in Frederick’s throat, more than he hears them. The continuation is almost too tender to be said aloud.
“Can you?” It is an offering, an opening, an indication of interest and hope.
“Is it alright if I…?” It cannot be said until it occurs.
In one breath, they close the last gap between them with a kiss. Frederick’s cheeks are still damp with tears, and he tastes of salt and only salt. There is something divine in the sparks that live everywhere they touch, just as there is something profane in their strangeness to each other.
The trees press in on them, murmuring around the pocket of clear ground where they kneel.
Jacques cannot help but pity the usurper. His own beloved Duke has railed against him night after night, convincing himself of his brother’s villainy as they lay to bed, granting him mercy before he drifted off to sleep. In his mind, Jacques had built the false Duke into a monstrous beast, full of fire and venom, but the man in front of him, the man in his arms, the man at his lips… is only a man, nothing more. Jacques has no doubt, that when they part, they will each melt into the forest, never to see the other again, so he savors the taste and feel of Frederick.
They are there for eons, holding each other, hands roaming everywhere, nowhere, all at once. Jacques murmurs into Frederick’s mouth, telling him all of his secrets without a uttering a single word. Frederick’s hands are warm. His tear tracks are drying, leaving Dead Seas running down his cheeks. Jacques cannot help but smooth them away with kisses.
Suddenly, there is a bird call, shrill and piercing. Jacques breaks away from Frederick like they have something to be ashamed of. Perhaps they do. An intake of breath. Frederick’s dark eyes are wild again. The bird calls again. Like a frightened deer, the false Duke bolts out of the clearing.
Jacques does not follow him. Perhaps he should. Jacques has never been one to chase life. He lets it happen to him. He breathes deeply, savoring the scent of the forest. The trees have not changed, in all this upheaval. They remain. Jacques looks deep into the woods, in the direction that Frederick ran. He sighs, and walks the opposite direction.
The forest swallows him whole.