I saw from Gus’s point of view as he worked the Inn with Hal that night. I felt the hot, gut twisting unease that kept him wiping his clammy hands on his pants. Saw glimpses of the amused gazes of the regulars with sharp enough ears and quick enough minds to catch what was going on. I saw flashes of his own imagination, where an image of me, somewhat more beautiful than I thought myself, doing everything from pushing off a starry-eyed duke to being convinced that staying with him would be the best for Gus.
The annoying bard had been the only one of the same mind as Gus, moodily sitting in his corner and strumming nonsense ballads he didn’t sing a word too.
When she comes back, I need to tell her I changed my mind—I need to send a letter to the duke saying I changed my mind. I want to leave to our cottage now. I want to go far away.
He thought this several times.
There’s no way I can compete with a duke. Hell, I can’t even compete with anyone. Why do I have to be so small? Why did I have to be born so late? Why’d I have to be born in dirt and left with nothing? I have nothing to give her, nothing she could want.
But she’s all I could ever want. She’s all I need.
The rock of emotions twisting harder and harder in his gut was enough to make him feel sick. By the time the last regular left and the bard headed up to bed, Gus thought he’d pass out the moment he fell into his bed. But as the minutes ticked on and I hadn’t come home, the rock only got harder and harder until he had to tip-toe past Hal and out into the common room, where he waited, pacing the floor.
I want to see her. I need to see her. I want to hug her. I want her to pet my head. I want her to kiss me, even if it means she treats me like a baby, please.
It was a wonder he didn’t whimper out loud.
The hole within him made my head spin.
At the same time, I recognized that hole. It gaped wide with the same desperate need and loneliness as the one in myself. Though I had no target for it to call to, like Gus did, I had been friends with it from almost the day I had arrived here. It hurt. Gus hurt.
The pain was still there, renewed thanks to my acknowledgement of it, when Gus’s magic withdrew and my attention to the dark outside world returned.
He didn’t take his hands away, though. Rather, clenched my hair and pulled me down into his arms so he could hold me close. Only once my face was to his shoulders and my chest against his did his arms go down to wrap tightly around my back.
I embraced him back, holding him with the same strength, as though I could pull him into the empty hole inside me. As though he could ease the raw emptiness.
“We can’t run away,” I whispered. “I don’t know how to make a living in this world without help. Neither do you. You almost died. We’re both lucky that Hal and Milly are willing to give as much as they have to us. We don’t live on our own merit.”
His head turned to nuzzle into the curve between my neck and shoulder.
I reached up to pet his head, like he had wanted. It was nice, knowing that he wanted me to touch him for once, not just me one-sidedly pushing all my affection on him.
I felt him give a shudder and relax just a bit more against me. He really was still so skinny and small.
“Gus Gus,” I said. “You have a big role in this world. You’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of people. I…I know you don’t care right now, and all you want to do is run away with me, but…I think you should prepare yourself as much as you can. Learn as much as you can. There’s nothing fun about losing your freedom to your own lack of ability and knowledge.”
A single line of magic poked my neck, conveying his sulky agreement. He didn’t want to agree with me. He didn’t want to work hard. He was tired. He hurt. Hadn’t he lived through enough?
My eyes burned. I blinked back tears.
“You’ve become quite adept with your magic. Being able to communicate like that. I’m jealous. You get to be as lazy as you want.”
“I’m not lazy,” he said aloud, puffing humid air across my throat.
I pat his head and pushed him off me. “Want to sleep with me tonight?”
I felt more than saw his sulky nod in the pitch darkness.
We climbed the ladder to the upper world, which was much warmer than below. I hadn’t realized while down there, since most of my awareness had been taken by his magic, but my fingers and feet had become numb from the cold. He noticed at the same time as me and squeezed my hand, even though his hands were just as cold. The darkness of mine and Milly’s bedroom wasn’t as dark as the cellar, but dark enough that I didn’t give a thought to slipping off my dress and sliding beneath the covers. Gus hesitated only for a moment before crawling underneath with me and tucking his head beneath my chin, like he had when he was smaller.
We were both cold.
“You need more fat on your bones,” I whispered, patting his back. “It’s like hugging an ice pick.”
He tried to pull away, a thin spike of magic conveying a disgruntled ‘Why are you even hugging me then?’ and ‘Fine then, I’ll go back to my own bed,’ against a background of shame and self-hatred.
Alarmed, I pulled him back.
“Jeeze, I’m sorry. You’re so sensitive. You’re a teenager, you know, it’s totally normal to be scrawny.”
As an apology, I kissed his forehead. That calmed his squirming instantly.
His thin feeler of magic remained between where our heads connected, allowing me to convey any thought that came to me as a way to comfort him. I showed him how I saw him, of all the things he could become, of all the dreams that could come true. I understood that, after a lifetime of living in darkness, it can be hard to imagine happiness, so I imagined them for him. I led him through worlds of beauty and peace, fields of good things, mansions without number, and magic beyond compare. Anything my imagination or reason could come up with, I gave him.
It doesn’t have to be me, you know, I thought somewhere in these dreams, not knowing if I was awake or asleep. Without effort lovely girls appeared, ready to love him with arms wide open.
When I thought that, his consciousness, which had just been along for the ride, finally nudged back in response.
But I don’t want them. Can’t that be okay?
And I didn’t know. I stood there in a field of wonders, knee deep in possibilities, and just didn’t know.
I didn’t want to think about it.
He waited. As the dust of my imaginings and thoughts brushed away, he gave a pulse of peace. Something like understanding, soft with sympathy, and warm with affection.
It’s okay, it’s okay.
Why had it turned to comforting me?
No sooner had I wondered that then I recognized the hot pain trembling through me. It had been my own trauma that had swept away our beautiful surroundings. His love scared me. Love in general did.
From there, his presence gently took up my own, as though his arms had grown large enough to swaddle me whole, and carried me into a new dream, a familiar dream. The colors and shapes settled and I found my dream body actually being carried in the arms of his adult self, the one he always imagined for himself. Ahead of us, down a dirt path through a bright grass field, was the two storied cottage I had seen in that dream.
So it was you who had given me this dream, not my subconscious, I thought.
I felt him nod like a kiss atop my head. Or perhaps his dream self had really kissed my crown.
For now…I felt him more than heard. Just for now…just for tonight…
The children were playing again, jumping in and out of flowers and grass, squealing with laughter. A breeze hushed above us, shepherding the clouds along a plain of eye-tearing blue.
I know. I can’t have it yet. I might never will.
He pushed the gate open with a hip. The children perked up from their play.
But just for now…just for a moment…even if it’s not real…
The air was warm.
Let’s stay here, my Lilly.