A/N: FLIPPING AMAZING cover art by Biscuitweevil
The ball was well underway when she started to feel… really off.
Well, to be more specific, physically off. She'd been feeling mentally and emotionally off the whole evening. The whole day. The whole week.
The whole month.
She'd been feeling mentally and emotionally off for so long that she'd almost forgotten, at this point, what it was like to feel any other way. It had started with Lavinia's birthday ball and seemed to be culminating with this one, with everything in between being… an increasingly bizarre, increasingly surreal nightmare.
She had completely lost her footing. She had lost her sense of… ownership of her life. Life had taken over and was simply sweeping her along with it and the more she struggled, it seemed, the faster she was being pulled under. It was a strengthening current that was dragging her out and out, into an unknown sea, and no matter how hard she fought, she could not make land again.
She'd lost her sense of place in the world; lost her feeling of security that life, and the castle, and the people within it, followed a certain order and always had, and always would. Everything was topsy-turvy, nothing could be relied on. Things Were Changing, changing on a fundamental level, and if this was what it felt like to become an adult, then the older generation could keep it!
It was confusing as hell, and… and painful, too.
We were… I thought we were… really starting to get along. Really starting to understand each other. Really starting to… enjoy each other.
Gunther. They'd been getting along better than they had since… well, ever. And then had come Lavinia's ball and the ensuing madness. There was no other word to adequately describe it.
And suddenly he'd been speechless in her presence… when he hadn't been giving her compliments that may or may not have been intended as mockery. Suddenly he'd been shooting his arrows wild, avoiding her except when they absolutely had to be in each other's company – and even then, not looking directly at her; running away at the very sight of her on the day she'd caught him reading, joining extended patrols without telling her or saying goodbye.
That last one, especially… if she were to be perfectly honest, that had hurt. Finding out from others where he'd gone, a whole day after he'd left. Being so completely in the dark about the activities of someone with whom she was supposed to be building some kind of workable partnership. Now he was... brooding, and brawling, and... and... and oh God, the pain in his eyes just lately! The resignation in his stance when she'd approached him in the woods. This mute misery that she didn't understand and so couldn't repair. Even though she wanted to so badly. It twisted her heart in knots and closed up her throat, choking off the words she wanted to say to him.
What was wrong with him?
What was wrong with her that he suddenly wanted nothing at all to do with her?
Right when she had been starting to… starting to…
Thaw toward him after all this time? Actually enjoy his company?
Realize that his broad shoulders, dark hair and smoldering grey eyes were, in point of fact, rather… attractive?
No! Well, all right... perhaps. But what would it matter even if she had? Plainly she'd become completely repellent to him. She didn't understand why or what she had done, but the evidence was pretty damn clear.
She drew in a hitching, hurt little breath at the thought, and that was when the room began – slowly, subtly at first, but it definitely began – to spin.
Brow furrowing slightly, she pressed a hand absently to her midsection. The gown fit her quite snugly there, but was it tight enough to cause actual physical distress? She didn't think so…
Something she'd eaten, then?
No, not with Pepper running the kitchen, never.
Something she'd drunk?
Equally impossible. It was true that the drink was flowing freely tonight, but she herself had barely partaken; only a single time, and under duress at that. Just one cup that had been pressed upon her, with suffocating solicitude, by Algernon – and with her mother watching hawk-like, and sure to cause a commotion should she have refused.
But she'd taken only a few sips before discreetly setting down the drink and moving away, with studied nonchalance, through the revelers – leaving it deliberately behind.
Becoming inebriated was simply not an option tonight. She needed her wits about her in order to navigate this wretched, wretched affair, and hopefully retire as early as possible.
This was what she was thinking as the room actually began to tilt a bit.
Oh, hell and maggots. No. This was not allowed to be happening right now. No, no, no. She needed to be in control tonight, more than she normally was, not less! She felt such a loss of control, such a vulnerability, simply by virtue of being in this stupid dress; she needed to counteract it, to balance it out by being more on point than ever. And yet, instead, it seemed as if the dress was actually, physically transforming her into just the sort of weak-kneed, swooning maiden that she swore she'd never be.
It was too unfair to be borne.
I need… water. Just some… some cold water will…
She began to pick her way across the hall, intent on reaching the kitchens where there was water to be had, and even more crucially, where Pepper was. She suddenly felt badly in need of a friend. Jester was busy performing, Rake was assisting Pepper, Smithy was… not fond of balls. No more was she, but Smithy had the luxury of staying away, that lucky... lucky…
Her thoughts were starting to scatter, she reflected distantly, as the floor seemed to give a sideways lurch beneath her feet. She flung out an arm, steadying herself against the banquet table.
Not good, this was not good.
She stood there for a moment, leaning against the table, one hand gripping its edge and the other coming up to massage her temple as she tried desperately to get her bearings, to will the room back into focus, to will her unruly body back under control.
Even Gunther would be a sight for sore eyes at this point, but the last time she'd caught a glimpse of him through the crowd had to have been nearly an hour ago. Apparently he had made his escape, and she certainly couldn't blame him.
But she did wish suddenly, fiercely, that he were here right now… although she flatly refused to allow herself to examine what her motives for such a desire might be.
Not that she was in any condition to wax introspective anyway; she was having an increasingly difficult time just remaining upright.
What is wrong with me!?
True panic was now beginning to tinge her thoughts… but it was muted, because everything was muted. The hall, the lights, the music, the people, the whole world – all of it was… was receding, somehow.
She had to get out of here.
A male voice at her elbow, startling her badly. Which just went to show how far gone she was, because no one should be able to get this close without her realizing it. Disturbed, she spun toward the voice, and stumbled alarmingly.
A hand shot out to catch her, offering support that she was more or less compelled, at this point, to accept – whether she particularly wanted it or not.
And she most assuredly did not.
Algernon. She'd never liked him; had disliked him on very principle before she'd even met him; but ever since her encounter with Gunther in the woods, since getting a really good, close look at the damage this man had inflicted on him, she could barely stand the sight of him. She positively loathed him now.
"My lady, forgive me, but you seem unwell," the human toad observed, warm concern in his voice.
Oh champion observation; your skills of deduction are beyond compare, Jane thought with miserable acidity, as he asked if he could be of any help.
"No, I…. thank you, but I think I just need some air," she managed. Yes, that was it. She'd go out into the courtyard where hopefully the night air would brace her somewhat, then make her way down to the kitchens via the exterior door. It was a solid plan, especially for being come up with on the spur of the moment by someone in a deeply – and every increasingly – compromised state, but there was one sticking point. She did not want company. Well, not her present company, at any rate.
But Algernon did not seem inclined to let her go it alone.
"With all due respect, my lady," he insisted in a tone that was probably meant to be concerned and soothing, but which Jane processed as patronizing and condescending, "you do not appear able to make your way unassisted. Please allow me to accompany you. My mother and sister often become overwrought with nerves; I am familiar with such episodes."
Overwrought with nerves!? EPISODES? Jane's teeth clenched. Something was wrong with her, yes, but she was not overwrought with nerves and she was most assuredly not having some sort of… of… episode!
Unless completely losing her cool and flying off the handle at this fool once and for all counted as an episode; in that case, maybe she was about to have one after all.
Good God, he was actually going on about the "feminine condition" and "vapors" as he steered her across the room. She was seething, so angry she could barely think straight; but her surroundings were now sliding in and out of focus in a frightening manner, and she was suddenly not at all sure she'd even be able to stand – let alone walk – unsupported.
This was… this was…
There weren't even words for what this was.
It took her several seconds to realize that they had stopped moving; several more to tune in, with an effort, what Algernon was saying… and then to realize that he was no longer speaking to her.
" – escorting my beloved back to her chambers; she is not well."
His beloved!? Now she was his BELOVED? Her stomach literally lurched. On top of everything else, she was starting to feel queasy.
"I am sorry to hear that Jane is not herself," came the response, "but as I just said, my daughter has requested the pleasure of your company, and she is unaccustomed to being gainsaid… or kept waiting."
There was a heavy pause, and then Algernon said with stiff reluctance, "of course." She was vaguely, distantly aware of him disengaging; he lifted her hand and brushed his lips across it, promising to return to her as soon as he could.
Then she was left alone with the queen. A rather unexpected source of salvation, despite the fact that she was one of the very few people present with the authority to command Algernon – which she'd just wielded with characteristic composure and grace.
"Your majesty," Jane managed, for all that it was becoming almost prohibitively difficult to string more than two words together, "how did… you know…"
"That you detest him?" came the quiet, dryly amused response. "Everyone knows that, Jane. Except, I suppose, for him… and perhaps your mother."
"Th…thank you," she said faintly.
"Are you ill?" the queen asked, looking at her critically. "I assumed you were acting, just trying to escape, but –"
"Fine," she said automatically, although she was anything but. "I just… really do need some air, I think. Without –" (why be circumspect? Her Majesty clearly knew the truth; in fact, according to her, everyone knew the truth) – "him."
"Then I shall keep him occupied," the older woman said, and was gone before Jane could even begin to properly articulate her gratitude.
Blinking hard, forcing her eyes back into some semblance of focus, she found that she was now actually quite near the exit into the courtyard. Thanking God for small favors, she stumbled through the door into the bracingly chill night air.
She had been hoping that once she got outside, a few deep breaths would be all it took to put her right, but unfortunately, such was not the case. By the time she reached the courtyard, the world around her seemed to be spinning so wildly that it was all she could do to make it a few steps away from the door, then throw herself toward the nearest wall with the absolute knowledge that she was about to fall down.
She hit the wall hard and slid down it – feeling the fabric of her gown catch and scrape and snag against the rough-hewn grey stone – until she was sitting on the ground with her back pressed against the side of the building, skirts puddled around her; heavy, luxuriant, so dark a blue as to appear black in the faint illumination of torches and moon.
She balled her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms in an attempt to ground herself, bring herself around; tilted her head back against the wall, squeezed her eyes shut and gulped in air like she was drowning. Desperately willed her stomach to settle; it was in a state that was perilously close to open revolt. Why? Why? She'd barely even eaten anything tonight! Pepper had surpassed herself, but Jane's heart had not been in it.
So she never saw Gunther seated across the courtyard with his head cradled in his still-bandaged hands; took no notice of him shooting to his feet at the sight of her, crossing the distance between them first at a jog, then at a flat run.
The next thing she knew, he was simply there.
Her eyes flew open again at the familiar voice, now taut with worry; she struggled to bring him into focus, and almost managed it… but not quite.
"Gunther." Her voice was no more than a whisper. And yet she was glad – she was suddenly really, really glad – that he was there. She even tried to give him a little smile… although she didn't remotely succeed. And even in her current state, she couldn't help making comparisons. No cloying, showy concern or prattling on about feminine delicacy, no hand-kissing, for God's sake; Gunther wasted no words at all. He simply asked, in that same tight, urgent voice, "What happened? What is wrong?"
"I… I do not, I…" she swallowed hard, let her head fall back against the wall again, and said simply, "sick."
He responded by pressing the back of his hand to each of her cheeks in turn, and then to her forehead, as if gauging for fever. "You are clammy," he said, frowning.
She couldn't help it; despite everything, a tiny laugh bubbled up and escaped her. The whole evening long, people had been telling her she was all manner of things; beautiful, enchanting, graceful, radiant, ethereal, a vision… heaps upon heaps of unwanted, unwelcome praise based not on her character or her abilities or accomplishments, but solely on her appearance in this particular article of clothing. After all of that, being called "clammy" was sort of… well… refreshing.
Laughing, however, proved to be a mistake. Her stomach turned over and the next thing she knew, she was fighting back a sudden powerful urge to start heaving. She actually clamped her hands over her mouth, although thank God, she was able to get it under control.
"Gunther," she managed, in a shaky, constricted voice, "I n-need –"
"Come on," he said simply, and then he was pulling her to her feet; not taking her by the elbow in a proper, genteel way, but slinging her arm over his shoulder and supporting her the way a soldier would support a wounded fellow after combat. Her mind was comparing, comparing, even as her body felt as if it were shutting down.
He helped her through the grounds to her tower; when they passed one of Rake's vegetable collecting bins lying empty on the ground, he scooped it up grimly, without a word.
No words needed to pass between them; she knew what he'd grabbed it for, as her stomach turned over again.
She knew what he'd grabbed it for; he knew what she'd need it for. Because, came the sudden flash of insight, they were partners. They'd been partners for years. How was she only just beginning to realize that?
She examined, insofar as she was able under the current circumstances, how she felt about the possibility of Gunther imminently watching her be violently ill into Rake's abandoned tub. She certainly was not thrilled about it, but she found that she wasn't entirely horrified, either. Gunther had seen her with her guard down before, after all.
He'd seen her bloodied and blistered, abraded and bruised. He'd seen her scraped raw, blue-lipped from cold, sunburned and dehydrated, and so tired and sore she could barely move. So why not this? It would be better than being alone.
She paused and tested that thought as Gunther, still supporting her, shouldered open her door. It would be better than being alone, because… why?
Because I trust him.
And there it was. Her head was swimming afresh with this new realization as he helped her over to her bed, eased her down so she was sitting on the edge of it, then went back to shut her door.
She trusted him. She knew he'd take care of her, for multiple reasons. Their training had conditioned them to take care of each other, though neither had truly understood or appreciated it at the time. And she knew him; had known him for half her lifetime. Knew his goals, knew his foibles, knew his strengths and weaknesses, knew the good and the bad. (None of which she knew about Algernon; her mind continued to tick away the comparisons.) At the end of the day, his sometimes… challenging… personality notwithstanding, she knew he had honor. She knew he was decent. And she knew he'd take care of her for one more reason, too – because if their roles were reversed, she'd take care of him.
Although it would have been a lot more difficult to support him back to his quarters.
He was just turning around to face her, a question poised on his lips, when the nausea hit her in earnest, and it hit her hard. She slid off the side of her bed, landed jarringly on hands and knees; frantically swept a drift of stupid, useless baubles out of the way and scrabbled for the vegetable bin, and then her whole body was heaving… and there was little room left for further coherent thought.
It did occur to her though, dazedly – as Gunther reached her side in a flash and wrapped one arm around her, wordlessly supporting her once more – to wonder how that gilded paragon of courtliness and chivalry, Algernon, would behave in this particular situation.
She didn't think he'd handle it nearly so well.
Her brows knit as she tried to rally herself to give a more acceptable answer; a real, actual, you know, using-words sort of answer.
She was just so wrung out.
She was sitting on the floor, slumped against the foot of her bed, so exhausted and drained that she could barely move. Gunther was sitting next to her, so close they were touching, shoulder to shoulder. After she had heaved herself dry, he'd gone to discard the bin, and she'd thought that would be the last she'd see of him tonight (or maybe ever, a cynical corner of her mind had whispered; could she really expect him to want anything further to do with her after... that?)
But he'd returned not even ten minutes later, carrying a large jug of cold water, had settled back down beside her and had managed to get her to drink nearly all of it down even though she'd wanted to stop after only a few swallows. In typical Gunther fashion he had refused to take 'no' for an answer, challenging and haranguing and annoying her into just about emptying the damn thing. Implying that she couldn't finish it so that she'd been absolutely compelled to prove him wrong. Then she'd let her head tip back against the edge of her mattress, her whole body relaxing, eyes falling shut, and had just... drifted.
Now, though, Gunther was pulling her back. "Jane," he repeated insistently.
She prised her weary eyes open; tilted her head in his direction. "Gunther. What."
She snorted weakly. "I wish I knew."
He was frowning again. "What did you eat tonight?"
"Almost nothing. This... torture device I am wearing is rather restrictive."
An oddly rueful expression crossed Gunther's face as he said, "yes, I believe that." A moment later he added, "how much did you drink?"
"Two or three sips. I swear that was all. I did not even want that much, but... mother was watching and would have made a scene if I had refused."
There was an immediate shift in Gunther; she felt him suddenly tense up beside her. "Why was it so important to your mother?"
"Because Algernon pressed the drink on me, and she –" Jane gave a weak, one-shouldered shrug – "likes him."
Still with his shoulder pressed to hers, Gunther went even tauter. Jane suddenly felt more as if she were sitting next to a loaded crossbow than a human being. "So you just accepted what he handed you? Did you see him prepare the drink?"
"Prepare the... why would I... Gunther, wh–"
"Did you, or not!?"
"Of course not. I doubt he did prepare the drink; he hardly seems the type to perform such tasks himself. I am sure he just... took it from a server and passed it on to me. Gunther, what -"
"And you started feeling ill shortly after you drank from it."
"And you drank less than half of it."
"Less than half of less than half. Gunther, where are you going with this?"
He opened his mouth and seemed on the verge of speech, but then closed it again and shook his head. "Never mind. How do you feel now?"
"Better... I think... but tired." That was an understatement. Her eyes were dragging themselves closed again even as she spoke.
Unexpectedly, he gave a short bark of laughter. "Would you believe I was in almost your exact same position, just a few days ago?"
Jane was intrigued despite herself. "Same position? How do you mean? The wearing a sodding great horrible dress part? Or the vomiting all over the place part?"
He was silent for so long that she assumed he'd decided not to dignify her ridiculous question with an answer (it was a jest, Gunther, for heaven's sake)... then he said, softly but quite clearly, "both."
Which was so unexpected that it surprised a small but genuine laugh out of her. "Indeed!? Would you care to elaborate, squire?"
"No," he said with flat emphasis. And then, after a brief pause, "I should let you go to bed."
A sudden, completely unexpected sense of panic engulfed her, as abrupt and as strong as the wave of vertigo that had swept over her earlier, at the ball.
"No," she croaked, echoing him, eyes flying open again. It was just that, despite how bone-weary she was, going to bed held absolutely no appeal for her. From where she sat, it just looked like an insurmountable task. Going to bed meant first getting up. It meant struggling to release her hair from its ridiculously complicated up-do, which had taken her mother a full hour to create. It meant somehow fighting her way free of this wretchedly elaborate gown – it wasn't quite as absurdly fussy as the first one, the one that had set this entire maelstrom in motion, but it didn't follow that this one was... simple.
And it meant being alone.
Maybe... maybe, that most of all.
She just wasn't equal to it, any of it, right now. Not to dealing with her hair, not to dealing with her gown, and not to losing Gunther's companionship.
Her eyes met his, which were startled out of their usual guardedness. He was looking at her intently, questioningly.
She faltered for a moment, feeling foolish, but forced her request out anyway. "Will you... uhm... can we... stay like this a while longer? Please?"
Something flashed behind his eyes, but she couldn't make out what it was. Or maybe it was just a trick of the dim and guttering light. "All right," he said slowly, quietly, "if that is what you want."
In lieu of an answer, she sighed and let her head fall against his shoulder. Shifting slightly, she ended up covering his hand – (his poor battered, bandaged hand) – which lay on the floor between them, with her own. She thought briefly about moving it – the two of them were in physical contact literally all the time but this was, undeniably, different; would he think her terribly forward? – but she was just too exhausted. She was already slipping away into sleep.
Then she felt, right at the edge of her consciousness, Gunther's hand closing around hers... so that answered that question. Perhaps not too forward, after all.
She was sure she was dreaming when, a moment later, she heard him mutter to himself, "if this is what I think it is, I am going to kill him."
And she knew she had to be dreaming when, an indeterminate amount of time after that, she felt him release her hand... and then, with the utmost gentleness and care, begin pulling the pins from her hair.