by Laura Fox
based on the anime
Allison & Lillia
Gazing out the window of the rural clinic, Wil looked beyond the dawn-gilt carpet of blue-green grass outside --- a floodplain meadow that he blessed for its lack of cover --- and surveyed the slope down from thoroughness into paranoia with the hard, dry familiarity the past decade had seared into him. Prisoner #42 had driven him two steps down it already, had predicted and controlled every turn of events in that hellish train ride, short of Allison’s piloting skills, but even he couldn’t have predicted that Treize would survive.
Wil turned toward the bed where the prince lay with the morning light from the window slanting over him. His locks of dark hair swept across his bandaged forehead, his eyes were closed and his mouth open just slightly in a relaxed face, and his left arm --- the only limb that had somehow escaped fracture --- was folded with his hand resting on the crisp, white sheet turned down over his chest, gently rising and falling with his breath. From this angle, he looked almost as if he had drifted unconscious through a good night’s sleep, not days of trauma and surgery.
Wil realized that it was his own shadow falling over Treize’s face and moved aside. The sudden ray of sun across his eyes made them twitch slightly --- a good sign, but he still had yet to wake, and nothing was certain.
When Fiona had said that the Goddess of Fortune was surely looking over her son, it had been difficult to tell whether she really believed it; she and Carr had been the very picture of regal composure that evening, but there had been something strange in her eyes and her voice that Wil couldn’t quite identify, and Carr had only been able to suppress a quiver in his chin when engaging with others directly. Still, that Goddess had brought Treize this far. Judging by his injuries, he had hit the river at the bottom of the gorge at its deepest point, feet first. The water had cushioned his fall enough to save his life, then carried him downstream and not to the bottom. Just after it had happened, Wil had directed search parties along the short stretch of that tributary river before the confluence, knowing that if Treize were washed into the Lutoni the case was probably hopeless, but a less rational voice inside him had insisted that abandoning the prince to an outside chance one time had been quite enough, and when heeding that voice had brought him a report of an unknown young man recovered barely alive a mile down the great boundary river on the Sou-Beil side, he hadn’t even thought to doubt or be surprised.
But he also knew that the Goddess of Fortune was nothing if not fickle. Bone marrow in the blood, swelling in the brain, a brush with drowning too close to ever wake up from --- as his mind ticked off possibly fatal complications beyond his control, he felt each one push down into his stomach, but that was a waste of his energy when there were worries within his scope to deal with.
Prisoner #42’s body had still not been found. After being tragically outmaneuvered by that man, Wil had re-read everything available about him in the last few days, and still it was impossible to say whether death was meant to be his escape or to cover his escape. No doubt he had intentionally chosen the fall into deep water that would leave a corpse likely unrecoverable. Even in death, he could thus become a sword hanging by a thread over the heads of the authorities and potential victims, too fearsome to discount him as dead without proof, and who could say whether it was an empty threat? Wil had read of expert divers who could survive such plunges --- Treize had accidentally proven that it was possible. And one thing was dreadfully certain about Prisoner #42: he never let a victim go. His sophisticated plans had always succeeded in the first case, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have contingencies, only that they had never been revealed. Even if he was dead, his multilayered cast of dupes could have concealed one skillful accomplice who understood his aims and could see them through, and he himself might not have been the Minister of Justice’s only gambit; the plot had been revealed to Queen Mathilda’s horror, so the Minister was under arrest and his aspirations for his son were in ruins --- Prisoner #42 had surely planned that vengeful stroke, as well --- but he might have set something else in motion beforehand.
Worse yet, he could hardly be the only one with such aspirations, nor were they the only possible motive. Treize wasn’t even known as a prince in his own kingdom, a backwater from the other side of a long war whose resentments were not easily forgotten by everyone; leaked word that he was Mathilda’s first choice would strike many powerful people in Sou-Beil as if their queen was to marry an enemy commoner. One of them might well try to eliminate him for the outrage alone --- and might publicly claim credit for doing so. This attempt still remained secret, but if a future one were made known in Roxche, an international incident was a real danger.
No, Wil thought, there was no shortage of threats who might seize on this as an opportunity. Maybe he was a step too far down that familiar treacherous slope, but better safe than again-sorry.
No one could have predicted that Treize would survive and come ashore where he did, but the breathing room thus created was closing in fast. As soon as Queen Mathilda had gotten word, she had insisted on sending her own royal physicians --- the right choice from any other viewpoint, but they could have been tracked and had inspired talk among the locals, and Wil had watched even them with wary eyes. Another messenger had gone to Fiona and Carr, and it was still possible that there had been leaks on their side; for all their loyal passion, Wil couldn’t help but see the Ixtovan Royal Guard, who had entrusted their prince to him without sending their own detail and recently allowed Claire Nikhto’s crew to smuggle an arsenal into a party with their king and queen, as amateurs whom he could perhaps trust but could never rely on. The local telephones were on unsecured party lines, even telegraph could be compromised, regular mail ironically secure but too slow to be useful, and those subordinates he trusted as messengers couldn’t be spared lightly.
That was why Allison and Lillia didn’t know, and wouldn’t for some time. In this case Wil’s rational side was firm; telling his daughter that the friend who had sacrificed himself for her had survived was a personal matter, not crucial enough to take special measures for, and letters that still might come one after another saying first “we’ve found him alive” and then “he has passed away” would be too cruel.
With slow steps, he crossed to the bedside and rested a hand on Treize’s hair; looking down on him from this close, there was no escaping the ugly bruises on the right side of his face, the awkwardly-angled brace binding his right arm... It wasn’t the first time Wil had said this, but along this line, it was all he could do now: “Thank you, Treize.” The royal doctors had said that it might help call him back from his coma if he heard his own name, and Wil had relented at least that far. “Lillia is safe at home now. Hurry and get well so she can thank you herself.”
The footsteps of several people approached in the hall and brought a knock at the door, still early for the regular medical check.
“Leader?” It was Ax. There had been no time for new codenames.
“What is it, Ann?”
“Ozett brought some guests back with him; one of them wants to come in.”
“Show them in, please.” He had heard the car arrive not long before and thought it sounded like that one, returning from Ixtova --- with “guests.” Well, it was about time they sent someone.
Ax opened the door and, with a couple of the local nurses looking over her shoulder, ushered in a tall man with a mustache, glasses, a plain brown suit, and short, sandy hair.
“Mr. Leader, I presume?”
Carr Benedict’s voice took Wil by surprise, and he scolded himself. Carr had cut his hair more conservatively than Wil had ever seen it, shaved his beard, and perhaps begun letting his mustache grow out; his rectangular glasses had heavy frames, but the fake lenses didn’t bend the light or distort his eyes. Wil should have recognized him instantly. I must be tired, he thought, but he offered his hand with a friendly nod.
“I’m Kristof Bain, the boy’s father,” Carr greeted. They had at least given Treize a fictitious surname, and someone had told his father enough to use it, but when he took Wil’s offered hand with both of his own, he was not acting. “Thank you so much, for everything you’ve done.” The morning light from the window sparkled in his eyes.
Wil felt that watery ache himself; it was time to admit his own limitations. “Please, don’t think of it,” he said. “I hope you’ll excuse me, if we could speak later. I’m just realizing that I’ve had a long night...”
“Ah, of course, of course,” Carr said, seizing on it for his own sake; dispensing with formalities released him to his son’s bedside. One of the local nurses had followed him in and pulled a nearby wooden chair around for him, to a spot beside Treize’s left shoulder.
Wil left him be and turned to Ax. “Ann, can you take over here a little early? I need some rest.”
** * * **
The local nurses soon replaced the plain wooden chair beside the bed with a plush upholstered one. They made the pathos of the situation a liability because in their honest sympathy they tried to engage Carr in conversation and draw details out of him, but he deferred them for most of the day, begging indulgence after an all-night journey. Between doctors’ checks, when the room was quiet and his own controlled but obvious attacks of emotion passed, he dozed in his seat, still clasping Treize’s hand. Thus the nurses were moved to give him the cushioned chair.
By the time Wil returned that evening, however, Carr was too alert and composed to put off questions any longer, and he claimed that at the end of the war, after voluntarily giving up his military commission, he had bought shares in various metal and manufacturing interests at the depth of their peace-declaration plunge, and that the bounce back as they adjusted to civilian industry had brought him enough wealth for a quiet and comfortable independence amid the scenery of Ixtova. Treize, he said, was an adventurous young man who had gone on a trip by himself, leaving his parents with no idea how this had happened to him. The pair of Royal Guards he had brought with him were identified as household servants. A good enough story, Wil thought, as long as they could all keep it straight; Carr had picked up enough of the Ixtovan accent in his speech that it would be more suspicious to deny where he was from.
After the powdery dusk outside the window had descended into a blue-black night, most of the doctors and nurses went to bed. The movements of the other security agents echoed through the clinic in the night silence as loudly as if through water. In Treize’s room, his father and Wil were the only ones left watching over him. If they kept quiet, they could hear him breathing, but they also had the chance to speak freely at last.
“How is Fiona?” Wil asked. Saying it quite softly was enough for his voice to fill the room.
“Very distraught, but it’s an improvement,” Carr replied, equally restrained. “Your message brought her back to earth.”
“Before that... Well, you saw her, when she spoke to Lillia. She could seem almost all right, but somehow she was very far away, looking at people and talking to them like she was alone in the room talking to pictures of them, not the real thing.”
Wil thought that was a poetic way of describing the strangeness he had noticed then.
“Even I couldn’t reach her,” Carr continued wistfully. “She wasn’t ready to come back to a world without Treize --- she must have thought she couldn’t possibly stand it. A world where this has happened to him...” He looked over the bed, at his son’s casts and bandages. “She can stand that, but it isn’t easy.”
“Merielle?” Wil queried, after a slight pause.
“With her it was totally different,” Carr said, a trace of a tender, bemused smile showing through his melancholy. “For a few hours she just wouldn’t accept it. ‘That’s impossible! It’s a lie!’ After those few hours were up, she got angry and stayed angry at anyone she could possibly blame. She was angry at Treize and found the excuse that if he had just accepted Mathilda’s proposal from the start it never would have happened, and she could blame Fi and I for that, too. When the second message came, she cooled down a bit, but only a bit. I suggest that you avoid her for a while, by the way.”
“...And what about you?”
“Well, I told myself, ‘keep your eyes in front of you when you have to, let it go through you when you can.’ I suppose I’ve had that in me ever since my time in the military ---” he broke with one soft chuckle, “--- like tea with jam.”
“I meant,” Wil corrected gently, “if Merielle is angry with me, what about you?”
He shook his head slowly toward the floor. “We put the burden on you when we knew you had another priority. You did your duty. We have to take our own responsibility. And of course, everything you’ve done since then...”
Wil couldn’t help a shameful spark of vindication, but it died out mercifully, leaving him with only a piece of very cold comfort.
Carr looked up at him and nearly repaid his concern in kind by asking about Lillia and Allison --- but of course, he realized, “Major Travas” wouldn’t know, and he stopped himself before rubbing salt in that wound, with the question reduced to a twitch of his lip.
Again they could hear the regular feather-soft sound of Treize breathing. The lull stretched on until, imperceptibly, the conversation had collapsed. Silent hours crept by as massively as glaciers. Wil relapsed into mulling tactics and watched out the window all the way across the plain to the distant glitter of moonlight on the river. He occasionally trained an ear to see if Carr was dozing again, but even in all that time, he never was. Sometimes his breath was solid and rhythmic, sometimes it was hot and clipped, but it was never slow enough to imagine that he was sleeping.
The powder had crept back into the sky when he spoke again out of nowhere. “Did I ever tell you,” he queried, “why it was Merielle?”
“If we had had two girls or two boys, it would have been one thing. We at least would have had until the christening. Identical twins like Francesca and Fiona, they even could have switched places later, if that was what they wanted, but with Merielle and Treize... We had until someone shouted ‘it’s a girl’ or ‘it’s a boy,’ and then there was no going back.”
“I always supposed that Merielle was born first,” Wil said, turning back to him. “And people tend to feel more sympathetic and... possessive toward a queen; that could be an advantage.”
“No, that’s not it.” Carr showed him a heavy smile and a sidelong glance. “We tossed a coin.”
“Did you really?”
He nodded. “And Treize has always known that, ever since he was old enough to understand that he wasn’t chosen. We didn’t want him to think that he had somehow been found lacking. Still, at times he’ll say things like ‘it was the right choice.’ And it was. Merielle is strong-willed and hard-working, and that will really serve her better, but, well... When Treize shows that noble side of his, I can’t help being haunted by the idea of him as a king --- a real king, not what he would be for Mathilda.” Again, one chuckle. “Not like me.”
“I can understand that,” Wil said. He could understand it all too well. ‘That noble side of his’... The previous year in Lartika, it had been Treize who took him to task for his ruthlessness, and when he knew that the danger he had suffered had meant the rescue of that seaplane full of orphans, he had considered it lucky. Wil remembered looking down from Allison’s plane at the scene below in agonizing slow motion, Lillia demanding that Treize take her hand while his would-be killer held fast to his leg. He must have seen it, just as Wil had: if he reached out to her, when the plane made a swoop, her hands would be jerked with the weight of three people, and the hard, slick rung of the ladder would go off-balance and struggle in her fingers; even if he only tried to hold on, she was likely to grab him herself with the same result; the only way to keep her safe was to let go, out of her reach. And Treize had done it, an act not of adolescent passion but of incredible clear-minded grace.
“Of course,” Carr said, continuing his own separate train of thought, “if their situations had been reversed it might have been totally different. Treize... We already went against the old traditions to raise him ourselves, but it was still a secret, so any time we went out in public, we had to leave him behind. Sometimes a couple of the Guard in plainclothes could bring him along and pretend they were his family, but then, if he fell down on the ice skating, we had to do our best not to even look. Maybe it was more painful for us than him, but Fi was always bothered by it, and sometimes she --- no, I can’t just blame her. Sometimes we tried too hard to keep him from feeling lonely or neglected.
“And then, when the twins were young and learning their habits, Merielle couldn’t see that she’d been given an advantage. To her, Treize could stay in a soft, warm lodge while she was laced into a gown and had to work. If he fell down on the ice, we couldn’t help him, but he didn’t have to fight off everyone trying to help him. So she had a princess’s life to chafe at and try to control, and if we were specially tender toward her brother, she couldn’t see it as compensation. It’s really no wonder if she came to bully him.
“And it’s really no wonder...” Carr had settled into comfortable rambling, but now he paused. Originally from Sou-Beil himself, he still couldn’t say it lightly. “Mathilda didn’t have a chance of winning his heart.”
“What?” Wil questioned, sudden as a reflex. That had struck him more deeply than he could account for.
Carr wagged a finger. “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve had the eagle’s eyes, except in matters of the heart. She’s a wonderful young woman, but for Treize, she wants to enfold him in something soft and warm --- like his parents. I don’t mean that he resents us, but being treated that way reminds him of being weak and dependent. Marrying Mathilda would be like being locked into his childhood; it might have advantages, but he would always be disappointed with himself.”
And you knew all along! That spark had returned, and this time Carr’s words fanned it up into a harsh glow of anger. Wil remembered Treize on the train, asking with downcasted eyes if it was also his fate to sacrifice his happiness. If Carr had known from the start that the match was ill-concieved, then he had put his son through that, had introduced him into a web of intrigues for which little Ixtova with its innocent pride was entirely out of its league, had risked --- and still-possibly lost --- Treize’s life for nothing. Wil wanted to shout at him for his recklessness, but he could still reach down to something cool inside himself; if he thought of Treize as a young man, the way his father would think of him, it was clear that taking the decision out of his hands would be the worst thing for him, refusing the proposal second only to accepting it. Carr had a deep, heavy look in his eyes seventeen years removed from the flying ace with a soft spot for mischief, and Wil found himself quite sure that anything he could shout would also be something Carr had known all along and had faced not in recklessness but courage.
And wasn’t that his job? Only in a few constituent kingdoms on either side of the river did royalty have any important role in governance; instead, their place was as their people’s conscience and pride, looking to what was right with grace and courage --- whether it was revealing the war-ending mural without a thought to personal consequences, taking up the weight of a dying princess’s destiny, entrusting a son to his own life, or putting a foot down with a security chief who said that doing the right thing was beyond the scope of his mission. That was Carr and Fiona’s job just as it was Mathilda’s, and they all did it inspiringly well. Standing beneath that grace and courage and holding it up: that was Wil’s job. What but that had he wanted so many years ago, wanted it enough to leave Allison behind with Lillia still growing inside her?
What Wil reconnected with washed over him like cool water, and only then did he realize how much guilt and nerves from the past week it was soothing. It had taken only a few moments. “You may be right,” was all he said.
Carr gave him a look as though he might have noticed something but let it pass and turned back to the bed. “It’s wind in his face that calls to him,” he said. “A crisp, bracing wind... So skiing, planes, motorcycles...” He cast a quick, heavy-hearted glance over the casts and braces; at this point he dared to guess that Treize would live, but what he would be able to do again was an open question. “They both took to that kind of thing, but his heart craves it in a way that his sister’s doesn’t. It makes him feel his life in his own hands.
“And it’s the same, with the kind of girl he would love.”
Wil smiled. Lillia. A ‘crisp, bracing wind’ in your face... “She takes that from her mother,” he said; although really, Allison was more like a whirlwind that would pick you up and carry you away...
Carr stretched his arms with a comfortable groan and levered himself up from the chair. When he turned around, he stopped; a glorious dawn blush had splashed across the clouds while he wasn’t looking, and he took a few steps toward the window and gazed out at it. A yawn brought him back to himself. “I’ll have to find myself a bed. Do you know how long I should plan to be here?”
“Until we get word from the doctors that he’s strong enough to travel,” Wil said. “I’ve been assuming we’ll take him back across the river to the capital after that.”
“Of course,” Carr confirmed.
The hospital Roxche had built in its capital had long been a jewel of national pride, originally in patriotic devotion to wounded war heroes, and now simply in its undisputed status as the best in the world. Like the royal doctors and the use of Treize’s real given name, it was both unnervingly traceable and absolutely non-negotiable.
“The only question is how,” Wil elaborated. “We obviously can’t jostle him for hours in a car, and I don’t trust a train or a boat.” Rationally or not, he drew the line at getting back on a train, and a boat, a vehicle that could be accessed and boarded from outside as it moved inexorably on its contrained course, was just a bit too much like a train.
“Hmm... That seems to leave one thing,” Carr pointed out.
“At least I won’t have to worry about finding a trustworthy pilot,” Wil replied, with a small, knowing smile.
The smile he got in return couldn’t wipe away Carr’s worry and fatigue but at least pushed it aside for a space.
“I have people trying to get us something. It will have to be at least a small passenger plane, maybe not what you’re used to...”
“That’s not a problem,” Carr said, pivoting to lean against the wall beside the window in a rakish posture drawn up from his past.
Wil saw the next sentence coming, and they announced it in chorus:
“All planes are the same.”
A soft answering moan from the bed snapped them both to attention. Treize was blinking into a sunbeam that the window cast across his face. Looking around, he found Wil first. “Major Travas...?” He shifted as if to sit up, but fell back suddenly. “Ouch!”
“Treize! Don’t try to move!” Wil commanded. The next most urgent thing spilled out right after it: “Lillia’s all right. She went home with her mother, but she’s safe.”
“Oh, good,” he sighed. “...But I must have been dreaming. I thought I heard...”
He trailed off as his father came up beside him; the disguise and the backlighting from the window left him squinting at the figure uncomprehendingly. Carr had to lean over him and take off the fake glasses, but then his face fell open in a smile of recognition, and his father bent low and embraced him gingerly but heartily.
“Treize... Thank God...”
One of the larger weights on Wil’s shoulders crumbled and fell away --- Treize was awake; he recognized the people around him --- but within the elation of relief, he knew that events were moving again and he had to put his hand in the stream and keep them going in the right direction. Treize had woken up at a convenient time, but they couldn’t wait to test how alert he was.
“Your majesty, please listen carefully. We’re here undercover, and you need to know the story before the doctors arrive.”
“Ah! Right!” He was understandably drowsy but already trying to fight through it.
** * * **
Treize’s good fortune held out that morning as the doctors poked at him and found no signs of paralysis or nerve damage. He put the nurses in even more of a flutter than his father had, and although he never seemed to be confused as to what he should tell them, he did become flustered, and Carr finally had to ward them off --- “It’s difficult enough for him just to be seen like this; don’t you understand a man’s pride??”
Rescue by his father inspired only an embarrassed, long-suffering sigh. Treize’s pride was quieter than that, but it ran deep; when asked if there was anything he wanted, his only request was to have the hinged hospital bed raised so he could sit up, and even when he was obviously in pain, he resisted being drugged. The worst had passed while he was still unconscious, and the remaining aches were no trifling thing but were moderate enough that he could withdraw into determined silence to endure them and fall into a fretful doze.
At such times, Carr stayed at the bedside, and now and then when his son was sleeping he showed the grave, care-weary face from his first night there. When Treize was awake and in better spirits, however, especially as his pain subsided and he grew stronger with passing days, his father took on a much lighter demeanor and had no trouble leaving him for hours at a time or knowingly needling him when they were together. After that night’s long talk, Wil recognized it as no contradiction; Carr was deeply concerned, but he knew that breathing space and challenge would serve his son better than coddling.
Indeed, it seemed to be a better approach than that of the two Royal Guards, a man and a woman who fussed over their prince at every opportunity. They did have ability, Wil thought, if only they could look past providing protectiveness to providing protection. They also weren’t as gracious with their blame as their king. Wil could tell that they were only grudgingly receptive to his instructions, even after Carr explicitly placed them under his command, and he knew that he was antagonizing them further as he kept them in lookout positions where watchful eyes and devotion to the task were enough and where they wouldn’t bother Treize more than necessary. It would make any remedial training he wanted to give them prohibitively troublesome if not impossible, but it was the best option for now; he was going to have that battle if he could, but not just yet.
One evening Wil arrived to take up the watch in Treize’s room, where Carr and “Ozett” were staying with him. A tray table over his lap supported a propped-up clipboard of paper and a pen-stand from one of the local doctors’ desks, and he was writing something with a vexed but determined face; several crumpled sheets were already scattered around.
His father was lounging in the cushioned chair beside him. “...There wouldn’t be anything wrong with making it ‘short and sweet,’ as they say: ‘I survived, and I’ll see you soon,’” he was saying. Deprived of a beard, he sharpened a corner of his still-growing mustache. “A young man should always leave a lady wanting more.”
“Papa!!” Treize protested, blushing.
A letter to Lillia, Wil surmised. Of course, if they were depending on Treize to give her a momentous revelation, experience suggested that she might have to wait some time, and her father mentally directed an apology to her like a prayer.
Carr looked up and noticed his entrance. “My, is it that time already? I should go and see about supper.” He rose and crossed to the door but turned back. “Is there anything special you’d like?”
“Not really,” Treize grumped.
“...Not even apple pie?”
His mouth tightened, but he refused to reply.
“Well then, I’ll be back later.”
After the door closed, the other agent gave in to temptation. “Is he always like that when your mother isn’t around?”
“Not usually... Not this bad,” Treize told him. “I think he’s still worried about me.”
“Ozett,” Wil said.
“Right.” He squeezed Treize’s good shoulder before he left. “You have a good night. Try to get some more sleep, okay?”
“Okay. Good night.”
Treize went back to writing. The paper came into view as Wil approached, and noticing a strange echoing quality, he looked at it despite himself. It wasn’t a letter; a single line was copied and recopied down the the page in shaky, drunkenly-slanted script:
A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
. . .
Treize was training himself to write with his left hand; that he was already working so diligently to regain strength in the way available to him was deeply reassuring.
The two of them were left alone. On a whim, Wil settled into the still-warm upholstered chair. “If we can take you to a good place for it, we ought to let you try a pistol in your left hand,” he said.
“Hm?” Treize turned to him, a little taken aback at having been read so clearly, but looking interested. “Can you shoot with your left hand?”
Wil nodded. “I trained myself to do it, although I’m not as good a shot that way.” Still good enough to drop a human target under most circumstances, but this was not the place for such unpleasant details.
He had something else to ask, which he had put off until now to avoid causing Treize undue stress, but at this point he seemed strong enough. “How much do you remember about what happened?”
Treize finished his line and put the pen on the holder thoughtfully. “All of it.”
“Everything? You remember falling?”
“Yeah. I kept watching Lillia and the plane, and then the train... The sound of the wheels and the vibration just stopped all of a sudden, almost like it was standing still for a second, and then it went out from under me. I remember falling and thinking ‘This is it; I’m going to die’... It was scary, but not as much as I would have thought,” he reflected. Somehow it hadn’t been as terrifying as nearly drowning in Lartika, not nearly as much as the sound of a gunshot coming with a stunning blow outside the Royal Lodge...
“And then just... boom.”
“Even hitting the water?” Wil questioned.
“Well, I didn’t know it was water. It was just a flash, like something huge hit me and bit me in two like that and swallowed me,” --- he gestured diagonally across his body, cutting away his broken arm and legs --- “and then I was asleep.”
It was amazing. If he retained this much, it had to be asked just on the outside chance... “Did you see what happened to the man who attacked you?”
Treize’s eyes widened with a jolt of realization. “No, I... I forgot about him,” he admitted, feeling very foolish. When had he forgotten? Even before he fell... When he was holding onto the ladder, looking up at Lillia’s reaching hand, realizing that she could be pulled down unless... He had felt the grip on his leg and forgotten where it was coming from; once he knew what he had to do, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. “I’m sorry...”
“No, no!” Wil insisted, gripping his shoulder. “Don’t worry about that! I’m... I can’t tell you how grateful I am for what you’ve done already.”
To his surprise, Treize shifted uncomfortably. “Are you going to write to Lillia?” he asked.
It put Wil off balance for a moment before he could answer. “No,” he decided. “I’ll leave that to you.”
“I know I have to, but I don’t know what to say... I ought to just take Papa’s advice and be done with it, but...”
Wil tried to think what could make it so difficult. “Would you be embarrassed if she saw you like this?”
“No. Well, maybe. But...” He braced himself for a sudden push forward. “But I saved her, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.”
“I almost died saving her, right??”
“But I---” He struggled in inexplicable distress. “I don’t want to --- put that on her! I don’t know how to say it...”
“No, I understand,” Wil assured him. Suddenly he did understand --- the discomfort and seemingly wild shift of topic at being told ‘I’m so grateful’ now made sense, and the feeling... For all the times during Treize’s coma that he had said ‘Hurry and get well so she can thank you,’ he had never thought of it. If it had been himself and Allison...
In that case, he realized, he would’ve had nothing to worry about, and Lillia was so much like her mother... “I do see what you mean,” he said slowly, “but I think that if she was going to feel indebted, first you would have to convince her that she couldn’t have held you up.”
Treize stared at him, then past him, imagining that conversation. He broke into a laugh and fell back against the upraised mattress. “She probably thinks I was just being stupid!”
“Would you have it any other way?”
The smile on Treize’s face left no need for an answer. After a few moments, it faded. “So you didn’t find that man...?”
“No, but we wouldn’t necessarily expect to in a case like that. He’s almost certainly dead.”
“...But so was I.”
“We’re not taking chances,” Wil said. Though still wary, he’d been able to take a step back from that swamp of paranoia, and in any case, he wasn’t about to pull Treize toward it.
Instead, he let him get back to his writing practice. Despite slow, careful work, it kept coming out as clumsy scrawl, and Treize had crumpled another page of it and started the next when his father returned with a hearty chicken soup --- and a slice of hot apple pie.
** * * **
The doctors were very conservative in giving permission for Treize to travel; the delay hung overhead casting a shadow of anxiety, but it also had its uses.
Treize never did manage a letter to Lillia, but that was hardly unexpected, and he had fallen back to only his usual hesitation. Carr, on the other hand, wrote a long letter to Fiona and included a roll of photographs of himself and Treize; he entrusted the camera to Wil, who made certain that nothing in the pictures could identify where they had been taken, and sent the undeveloped film cartridge in a small parcel with the letter. By that time Treize’s bandages were off and the scrape on his head they had dressed was hidden by his hair, so they could send his mother a somewhat less pathetic image.
After long consideration, Wil had a message of his own to deliver, but not in writing. When he had a secure moment with two of his subordinates, he dictated it to “Izuma” to take back to headquarters orally: since word of Mathilda’s proposal had leaked, Treize needed the same level of protection as if it were an official engagement, and the Ixtovan Royal Guard was unable to provide it, so he requested the assignment of supporting and training them to that end for as long as possible or necessary; he and Ozett would be enough without wasting manpower or becoming too obvious a presence. Izuma didn’t need him to say that he was asking to make amends for what had happened to Treize; headquarters wouldn’t need him to say it, either.
He had drafted and rehearsed the request in his mind, and had been going over it the third time when it fully struck him that he was asking to follow Treize to the capital of Roxche for an indeterminate length of time. The lapse had embarrassed him in a private, personal way, but had assured him that he wasn’t doing it for the ulterior purpose of time with Allison.
Ax was the other agent in the room; she watched Izuma leave and listened after his fading footsteps for a moment. “You’re leaving me behind,” she said simply.
“This time. I can’t promise to come back soon, but I will come back if I possibly can.”
She gave him an evaluating look. “Do you think that I couldn’t be relied on to protect Mr. Bain or his family?” she asked.
“Of course not,” Wil answered without hesitation. She was referring to Carr Benedict, and yes, if there was a vendetta, she had the right to include him in it, too, but there was a line that could not be crossed, and Wil knew better than to insult her by thinking that she needed it enforced or even pointed out. “...But he might tax your patience on a mission that will need a great deal of it. I won’t waste you by assigning you to something that doesn’t fit your strengths.”
Even without the added complication, Ax was stern and exacting where Ozett was easygoing and affable; it was clear who was more suited to a training mission with allies whose pride was sure to be rubbed raw.
She acknowledged it with a short nod. “Yes, sir.”
Two days later, the doctors had finally given their approval to move and preparations were underway when Izuma returned with the reply. Mathilda also hadn’t needed to be told that there was a penitential aspect to the request, and she supported it; in fact, she shared in the sense of responsibility herself. Barring dire necessity, headquarters would defer to the Queen’s wish.
** * * **
The plane they found had been built for private charter trips and was the smallest one Wil had ever seen with a separated cockpit and cabin. Normally it would seat a half-dozen passengers comfortably; accomodating Treize in his condition would make it tighter, but still enough for Wil, Ozett, and the two Royal Guards to accompany him. They put the plane through every possible check, including Carr taking it for a test flight, and finally everything was ready.
The royal doctors brought Treize to the small airport in the local ambulance. They strapped him down on a stretcher, which they in turn strapped securely into the cabin, fencing in the other passengers between the attachments. The doctors were also inflexible in this case, and despite the prince’s pride, they sent him off with a strong dose of pain medication.
Carr had boarded first, by necessity, and watched the rest from the cockpit door with the fake glasses finally tucked away in his pocket. Treize was loaded in from the rear head-first, and his father leaned over him face-to-face.
“Not so bad,” Treize said, sounding nonplussed.
“Lillia and I would say that it’s not so fun riding in a plane if you can’t fly it yourself.”
“Well, that is true, isn’t it...?” Carr admitted.
“And like this, I can’t even see anything...”
“By the way, Treize,” his father interjected, “when we get you to the capital, I’ll be going home.”
“Well, it’s time I was getting back. Your mother might be worrying about you too much. ...I might be worrying about her too much...”
Treize still just stared. The security agents around him had known it already and made the necessary preparations, but they had left it to his father to tell him, and apparently more than one man in that family knew how to withhold important revelations until the last possible opportunity.
“You don’t need to look so surprised, after we’ve let you go off on your own for a month on a motorcycle,” Carr argued, with a game smile. “You’ll feel better without me there annoying you.”
“Ah... That’s not...!” Treize was so taken by surprise that he couldn’t immediately hold up his end of the conceit, but after a moment of fumbling, wide-eyed honesty, he settled into a smile that showed he understood it.
“You’re clear!” “Ed” called from the rear door.
“Roger!” Carr shouted back; the door was slammed shut. He looked down at Treize again. “Ready?”
His son gave him a thumbs-up. “Ready.”
“Then let’s go!”
When he had sealed himself in the cockpit, the passengers waited for the not-quite-predictable moment the plane began to move. Wil knew that takeoff was the least dangerous part of a flight, but it still felt the most unsettling --- the gathering speed, the sudden pitch up into the air, and, for someone with a view of a window, the ground plunging away more quickly than life there would let anyone imagine. Then finally, as usual, the earth below resolved into something hazy and timeless, the air carried the plane along more smoothly than any terrestrial road, and a modern cabin like this one fell into such peace that it hardly seemed to be moving at all.
After only minutes of that seeming stillness, the intercom box beside the cockpit door crackled. “We’re on our way, and everything’s clear,” Carr addressed them. “But you know, Treize, I was thinking about what you said, that it wouldn’t be any fun. Well, how about this?”
Wil felt himself gently pushed down and back in his seat as the plane ascended toward starboard, then a familiar thrilling lift in his stomach as it crested an arc and descended again.
The Royal Guards held on tight, and the woman seated beside Treize’s left shoulder reached out to steady him. “Your Majesty, are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he told her with a laugh.
They worry about the wrong things, Wil thought. Carr knew exactly what he was doing, announcing to the passengers so they wouldn’t fear it as a sign of trouble and creating just enough tilt and acceleration to be enjoyable but not straining.
The intercom crackled again. “So what do you say, Treize? Shall we take it for a barrel roll?”
Treize couldn’t reach the box; only the guardswoman could, and she mashed the button. “Your Majesty, don’t be ridiculous!!”
“Now, Emma, you don’t need to be like that.”
“That’s what I should be saying to you!”
Maybe he heard Treize laughing in the background, or maybe he knew that she would react differently if he were actually causing a problem. “My, my, it looks like I’m on a tight leash this time --- but I’ll see what I can do for you!” he said, starting into another set of maneuvers.
“He would take the prince and princess for plane rides when they were small and do things like this,” the guardsman said, clinging to his seat with a long-suffering face.
“---Including the barrel roll,” Emma added.
“Well, I would tell him to, then,” Treize admitted. Judging by his beaming smile, he obviously remembered that in a much different light than his guards’ misplaced worries.
For Wil, it was a different nostalgia. The voice on the intercom was still the same after all these years, and when he tried to imagine the man in the pilot’s seat, his mind’s eye showed him the Carr Benedict he had first met so long ago, the debonair flying ace with his bomber jacket and his swept-back hair.
** * * **
In less than an hour, Treize was fighting to stay awake like a child up late at a pleasant game, but the medication finally got the better of him, and Emma curtly informed his father that he had fallen asleep. She could have added the fact that he was smiling, Wil thought.
The drugs were so strong and the landing so gentle that he slept through their arrival in the capital of Roxche. Carr didn’t wake him when he left; if he had, he couldn’t have showed that game smile right to the end, and he had said the best goodbye he could on the flight.
Treize didn’t wake up until he was already in the National Hospital. The doctors there put him through their own battery of tests from start to finish, including this time an x-ray machine; to get the best possible images from it, they removed his casts, and when they replaced them, they gave him more bend at the knees to better accomodate a wheelchair. In one of those, he was finally able to sit properly upright, and listened with Emma and Wil beside him as the doctor in charge reviewed his case.
She was a thin woman with a stern face and a tight ponytail of straight chestnut hair, and she showed them the x-ray images: ghostly shapes of flesh with bones traced like smoke columns and the harsh white punctuation of the pins and screws that had been used to surgically reassemble one thighbone. The previous doctors had done well, she said; there were still things to be done --- physical therapy, complications to watch for --- but these were matters for regular visits, not commitment in-hospital. Despite her unsmiling demeanor, her firm instruction was that, especially at Treize’s age, a patient should not be made to languish in idle isolation more than necessary, and that it was time to get his life back to normal as much as possible --- to put him back in school, for example.
The fact was that Treize had never been to school before. Here and now, the idea excited him for easily-guessed reasons, but the Royal Guards thought it would be too reckless.
Well, Wil thought, he had come here to teach them; it was time to start doing it. Someday, hopefully, they would learn about that old familiar slope, that it was possible to stand on thoroughness without descending into the kind of paranoia that could stifle their charge and nearly defeat the purpose --- for all her strength and graciousness, Fiona still bore the scars of being raised in a sealed bunker of a village by Guards in disguise --- but that would have to come in its own time. For now, he couldn’t afford to antagonize them anymore, but he could offer a gentle lesson in choosing the right times to worry and accepting and using the things you actually could trust...
As they discussed it over dinner in the apartment they had chosen as securable, Wil chose his moment to come to Treize’s defense. “It may not be such a bad idea,” he said. “After all, this is the capital. Military command, national politicians, powerful businesspeople; the places they send their children are no strangers to security. I know that at Lillia’s school---”
Mid-sentence, words suddenly failed him. He had known all along what he was saying, but the full feeling of what it meant sprang upon him just then, and he sat with a stunned, childish look on his face as it tried to find an outlet. Treize looked at him with concern. Ozett knew him better and laughed, which started Wil laughing, too; at that Treize understood it, but his guards still didn’t.
“What is it?” Emma asked.
“Oh, it’s just...” Wil tried to control himself and fell back on a line from a book. “It’s just such a ‘concatenation of events!’”
Privately, he was thinking that he had lost again to a noble lady.
Fiona had been more than right. The Goddess of Fortune was not only looking over her son, but doing it with a wink in her eye.
** * * **
Lillia gave up and stared out the classroom window. It would be enough to survive the day without worrying about learning anything.
When class had started again, it meant that Spring Break was over, and it finally brought with it a feeling that the events of Spring Break were all finished. Finding out that Treize was the prince of Ixtova, meeting his parents again and this time knowing that they were his parents... After New Years’ it made sense, but it still seemed crazy and surreal. And it hardly seemed to matter anymore, because if what had happened was all finished, it meant that no more word was going to come.
The previous night, laying in bed, she had finally let herself think it: Treize was dead. The delay had already blunted it while she wasn’t watching, so that it landed with a soft, heavy thud. It should have been a stab, and she had spent half the night mashing it down until it hurt like it should, but this morning, dragging herself to school after her mother had gotten her out of bed, sitting here too bleary and sore to follow a lesson, much less try to find a last-minute date for the dance party, she knew she couldn’t keep doing that.
No, the pain shouldn’t stay sharp, and it shouldn’t go dull. He just shouldn’t have died, that was all. How could he have been so stupid?
“...And today we’re welcoming a new student into our class,” the teacher was saying.
Lillia shut her eyes in a scowl. This was not the day for her to make a new face feel welcome.
“I hope you’ll all be very kind and considerate to him, since he’s come to our city for treatment after being in a serious accident. But he’s also from Ixtova, so I’m sure he’ll have lots of interesting stories about that.”
Her face screwed up tighter in annoyance at the coincidence. Was the universe trying to rub it in?? There were footsteps at the front of the classroom, and already a little hushed chatter among her classmates. She still refused to look up.
“Please, introduce yourself,” the teacher prompted.
“I’m pleased to meet everyone. My name is Treize Bain.”
At the sound of his voice, Lillia sprang to her feet with a clatter of her chair. There he was: Treize! Was it really him? Could he have another twin somewhere? But it would be too much of a coincidence for someone who looked just like him to have broken their arm and both legs and have to be wheeled in by a teacher’s aide. He met her gaze over the sudden hush, and there was no denying it; he recognized her.
He smiled. “I hope we’ll be good friends.”
She wanted to charge up to the head of the class right then and punch him, but she couldn’t hit someone in a wheelchair, even if it was Treize and he deserved it. In the end, she fell back into her chair in shock.
The class’s chatter swelled up, and the teacher had to step in. “Now, now, there will be plenty of time to get to know each other after your lesson. Please open your textbooks to . . .”
Lillia fairly slammed the book onto her desk and leafed into it savagely. All the questions she hadn’t had the chance to ask Treize, plus nearly as many new ones, flooded over her in boiling, indignant waves, but she found one solid rock to hang onto: if Treize was in her class, she wasn’t going to let him get better grades than hers. The shock set her heart pounding and propelled her to full wakefulness, and she applied herself to the lesson with that intensity.
At the end of the period, the teacher gave them some free time to get to know the new arrival. By the time Lillia had put her things away, a crowd of her classmates had already gathered around him.
“You don’t have to try that hard; you can just get someone to copy their notes for you,” one of the boys was telling him. “I’d do it, but you know, any girl you wanted to ask...” Some of the surrounding girls confirmed it with their titters.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Treize said shyly. “I’ll be okay anyway, I’ve covered this before...”
Tch! Lillia was already behind him!
Her friend Meg noticed her reaction. “Do you already know him from somewhere?”
She set off in that direction without answering.
“This is my first time in school ever,” he was explaining. “I always had private tutors before.”
“Yeah; I mean, where we live in Ixtova, school would be miles away in two or three feet of snow half the year.”
“Ooh, say that again!” one of the girls insisted.
“She likes your accent,” the first boy informed him.
Another boy was just asking if there was really an abominable snowman when Lillia forced her way through the crowd and stood glaring down at him.
He gave her an irritating little wave. “Hi, Lillia. It’s been awhile.”
“Don’t you ‘it’s been awhile’ me!!” she roared. “I had so much I wanted to ask you, and then you --- you go off like that, and now you just waltz in here like nothing happened??”
“Lillia, don’t be mean to him!” Meg pleaded.
“You don’t know him like I do! He’ll be fine!”
He felt fine. Her father had been right about her, and he smiled to see her standing over him without a trace of burden or pity. Maybe that gave him courage; “Um, speaking of waltzing, do you... have a date for the dance party yet?”
The other girls made a chorus of “Aww”s in varying inflections.
Lillia took no notice of them; her face fell into a different attitude instantly and unselfconsciously. “Hm? Well, no, not yet...” --- another sudden shift --- “Hey, that’s right! You’re here now; I’ll have you take me!”
“Um, that’s not really what you call ‘asking’...” Meg pointed out.
But Treize didn’t mind. “I’d be glad to.”
** * * **
Merielle ran out to meet the car as it pulled up outside the Royal Lodge, but when her father got out, she held back from him several paces and crossed her arms. “So it’s true what you’ve done to your hair.”
He accepted that greeting with an indulgent smile. “Well, you always say I’m not regal enough. Don’t I look the part better now?” he asked, stroking a corner of his now-thicker mustache as though he were getting too used to it like that.
“You look like a train conductor!” Merielle accused. “Besides, if you look the part and keep acting the same, that just makes it worse!”
Carr laughed, but looked up at the sound of the front door as Fiona came out onto the lawn.
“Welcome home, Darling.”
“Fiona!” He crossed to her in a flash and swept her nearly off her feet with a long, firm kiss. When it was finished, he still held her gently with their faces very close. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” she said, smoothing his tie.
Merielle groaned. She had not missed that. “So, how’s my stupid brother?”
Fiona’s eyes reflected the question in a more beseeching tone.
“He’ll be all right,” Carr reassured them. “He was getting stronger by the day when I left, and he’s in the best possible hands.”
He watched Merielle as he said it. She wouldn’t let herself smile, but she couldn’t help softening a little. Although it was good to see, the resulting melancholy face didn’t really suit her...
“It is a problem, though...” her father added theatrically. “Leaving him in the capital by himself, some girl there might just steal his heart.”
She took the bait. “What?? Why that---! If he---!!”
“My, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?” Fiona said, but with the deep, knowing smile that came from a mother’s calmer observation.
** * * **
The other students turned two-by-two across the glittering white ballroom under the light of the chandeliers. Watching them from beside a tall, velvet-curtained window, Treize felt trapped by his injuries as he never had before; there had been many moments of helpless frustration and embarrassment, to be sure, but they all paled in comparison now. He couldn’t even think of enjoying the music, with Lillia just standing there beside him when she should be dancing and enjoying herself.
He looked up at her; her hands were clasped behind her back, the diamond-paned window cast a steely blue shadow over her white dress, and she gazed out at the dance floor with distant eyes.
Suddenly she brightened up and waved at someone. “There’s Meg, and Seron;” she took Treize’s shoulder and pointed out the black-ponytailed friend from class with her dance partner. “I’m glad they ended up coming together --- they make such a good couple, don’t you think?”
“Uh... yeah...” he admitted, pricked by the comparison.
“You could sound happier than that! How rude!”
“No, no! I didn’t mean... uh...” He couldn’t think of a defense and surrendered to the real issue. “I’m sorry, Lillia.”
“Well, you don’t have to apologize to me,” she said, still thinking of her friend.
Treize avoided her eyes. “No, I mean... I asked you and then... Now I really can’t dance...”
She didn’t even pause. “Are you on that again?? Here!”
Taking the wheelchair by the arms, she pulled him out on to the dance floor. The other students scattered out in front of them, and the sudden motion shifted Treize’s stomach almost like the plane ride with his father.
“Uwah! Lillia, what are you doing!?”
“What do you think?? We’re dancing!” She took his good hand, lifted it up, and began pushing him around the floor in looping motions.
Allison and Wil watched from the gallery where the parents attending as chaperones and a few other students’ bodyguards were maintaining a respectful distance. After all these years, Allison still wore army boots under her elegant dark blue gown, and she smiled on her daughter with mischievous pride.
“So, how long is he going to be staying here?” she asked.
“The doctor expected a few months at least,” Wil replied.
“Hmm. Well, that might be enough time for him to get it off his chest.”
“More than the vacations they’ve had until now... It’s not the way anyone would want it to happen, but maybe the Goddess of Fortune is looking over those two after all.”
“Oh, only them?”
Wil hadn’t thought of any double meaning, but now, in a marriage built of stolen moments, Allison was smiling at him like a cat who had run off with a whole fish and intended to enjoy every bite.
Out on the dance floor, Lillia was getting the knack of how the wheelchair would move and was twirling Treize about with increasing confidence. It didn’t look all that graceful, but they were both smiling brightly --- the most important thing. Judging by the friendly, merry laughter that followed them around the dance floor, the other students knew that it was the most important thing, too.
** * FIN * **