Disclaimer: The characters (and odd lines from The Bad Beginning) featured in this story do not belong to me, and I am making no profit from using them.
Lemony knew about falling in love, in theory. He'd read enough on the subject to know when it was happening to him, at least, although he was now discovering that all the words in all the books he'd read had been hopelessly inadequate. Somehow it had never occurred to him that it really was like falling, that every time he was around her would make him feel he was tumbling forward, out of control and unsupported. From all accounts it was a wonderful sensation and it really, really was, but he hadn't realised that feeling wonderful could seem so much like being terrified. He hadn't known that, while he wanted more than anything in the world to be near her and envied the air she breathed and the food she ate and the mechanical pencil she used to mark her scripts, when she actually walked into a room he'd have to hide because he couldn't breathe otherwise. He'd climbed out of the library window once to avoid walking past her, even though she was engrossed in a book on Stanislavsky and probably wouldn't have even looked up.
Which was why it was simpler, all things considered, to curl up in bed with the blinds drawn, knees drawn up to his chest as he gripped his pillow in both arms and pretended this was going to go away once he'd got some rest.
Someone knocked on the door and then came in without waiting for a response. "They sent me to check on you," Jacques said, coming over and testing Lemony's forehead with the back of his hand as if it were the door to a potentially burning room. "So, do you have a pain anywhere? Nausea? Headache? Gigantic crush on a fellow volunteer? Loss of appetite?"
Lemony sat up so fast that his vision blurred and he almost had to lie down again. A hundred possible sentences swam through his mind in a chattering blur of how did you know and it's not a crush and oh dear God you have to help me. He said something, and Jacques seemed to understand his meaning so it had at least been actual words. He sat down on the bed, gently prying Lemony's hands away from his shirtsleeve.
"Brother," he said. "Poor petit frére. I have been there, you know. I know how it feels, although I realise you'll have to take my word for it on that."
It seemed unlikely, but Lemony was in no position to argue. "What do I do?" he asked, clutching the blanket reflexively.
"Well," Jacques said, putting a hand on his shoulder, "the masquerade ball at the Winnipeg mansion is coming up. You could ask her if she wants to go with you."
He might as well have suggested swallowing razor blades. "I can't!" Lemony gasped, scrambling off the bed and staring at Jacques as though he'd lost his mind, which he clearly had. "You don't understand, this is Beatrice we're talking about. Anyone else then yes I probably could ask her, she might even say yes, stranger things have happened, but Beatrice is…" He swallowed, trying to bring his voice down to its normal pitch. "…perfect. There's no reason she'd want to date me. No reason at all."
"There's a reason she wouldn't?"
There were infinite reasons she wouldn't, there was everything about him and everything about her and a myriad others besides, there were reasons written into the very fabric of the universe that Beatrice would never want to dance with him, and it was aggravating beyond belief that right now he couldn't think of a single one of them. Jacques had his head tilted to one side in an expression that was pretending to be honest curiosity. Lemony flung up his hands. "You think you're helping?" he snapped. "You want to know why I don't ask her? It's not just because she'd turn me down. It's because every time she looked at me, she'd know that I asked her and I'd know that she knew what I was thinking about her and the whole organisation would know that poor Lemony was hopelessly infatuated with the one person he could never have. It's bad enough now, when I'm just another volunteer to her. I can't face that. I can't…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "I just can't."
Jacques sighed. "Lemony, come here."
Lemony backed away. Jacques rolled his eyes and stood up, taking Lemony by the shoulders and pushing him back down on to the bed. "Number one, you don't know she's going to turn you down – don't interrupt – you don't know that. And number two, if she does say no, well…" He sighed again. "It hurts. It's one of the worst feelings there is, and you'll hate me for telling you to do this and yourself for listening and you'll want to go live in a cave and never make contact with the outside world again. But would that really be any worse than how you're feeling right now?"
"It might," Lemony muttered, looking down at the floor.
"Do you want to carry on like this?"
And there was the problem. He couldn't carry on like this. Actually asking Beatrice on a date was – well, if he'd been falling before, this was stepping over the edge of a ravine. But there was nowhere else to go. The ledge he stood on was already crumbling, and all he could do was step forward and hope that when he dashed himself to pieces on the jagged rocks below it would happen quickly and without too much pain.
She said yes.
More specifically, she said "of course".
"Of course I'll go with you, Lemony!" she said, and he grabbed the edge of a desk as the floor was whipped from under him, as though his plummet to the bottom of the ravine had been halted by an eagle picking him up in its talons and lifting him into the air. Or possibly a large net, dropped from a helicopter, or given the sudden lurching sensation maybe there was a trampoline at the bottom of the cliffs to fling him back in to the sky. Maybe this was a good time to stop trying to salvage the metaphor and actually say something, if he could get his mind to do any work beyond repeating of course, of course in varying tones of bewildered shock.
"Gnk," he said, which wasn't a word, and then he pulled himself together and said, "You – you will? That's wonderful, I can't wait," managing against all the odds to sound fairly normal.
She smiled at him. (Shesmiledathimshesmiledathimshesmiledathim.) A clock chimed somewhere, and she looked at her watch and said, "Oh drat, I've got to go. I'll see you later, okay?" He nodded. She touched his arm, transforming him for the moment into a golden statue who could only echo see you later and watch in awe as she walked away, swinging her bag of notebooks and equipment, as though all he'd done was ask her to a ball.
Moonlight striped the blankets as the two of them lay there, curled in each other's arms.
"Are you…?" Lemony whispered. "I – I mean, was that – did you…?"
Beatrice snuggled closer to him. "It was lovely, darling. You were lovely. You know, you don't have to keep asking me every time. It's not as though we haven't done this before."
"I just want it to be perfect for you."
"I know you do." She stroked the side of his face, fingers trailing gently across his skin. "But it wouldn't be the end of the world if something wasn't perfect, once in a while. I could deal with it."
He kissed her hand. "Yes, but I don't want you to have to forgive me anything. I never want to do anything that doesn't make you happy. I want – I want to make you feel the way you make me feel."
"But you do." She sat up to kiss him on the mouth, pushing him down on to the pillows as he returned it, trailing a hand along her spine. "My Lemony," she murmured, pulling away. "You know I love you."
"I do know that." He drew her closer, one hand entwined in her hair as she rested her head on his shoulder. "And I know how immensely lucky I am. Oh, Beatrice. I don't deserve you. I –"
"Don't say that." She pushed his arm away, frowning. "You always say that. Sometimes you act like you're afraid to even touch me."
"Sometimes I am, a little. You're like – a rare first edition. You're precious and delicate, and you should be kept somewhere safe, where there's nothing that can ever harm you. I'm scared I'm going to smudge you or tear you or leave fingerprints."
Beatrice raised her eyebrows. "I'm not made of paper, Lemony."
"You're just as important, though. You're more valuable to me than any book."
"That's…" She lay back against the pillows with a soft sigh. "Never mind. You're very dear to me as well, remember that."
"I try my best."
"I know you do." She closed her eyes. "Goodnight, my Lemony."
He had almost forgotten what day it was. By which he meant he had not at all forgotten, couldn't forget with the help of a frontal lobotomy performed by someone with a degenerative muscular disease and several years of alcoholism behind them, but he had at least been able to push it to the back of his mind.
If he'd thought about it, he would have avoided reading the paper at all. He'd only bought in the first place to use as a signal for Bela. Or maybe he would have read it, maybe it was inevitable that on this day he would sit down in this sea-front café with a cup of mediocre black coffee and read the wedding announcements, just from some perverse desire to make himself as miserable as possible.
No sugar in the coffee, though.
The announcement was only three lines long. He'd been reading it for half an hour now, and somewhere in his mind a voice reminded him that he might want to turn the page before this started to look suspicious to the other patrons. He ignored it, or rather his hands refused to obey, had given up on movement. In any case, turning the page wouldn't keep him from reading those words. They would follow him through a whole library's worth of pages. He could read those three lines over if he tore his own eyes out, all the more clearly because then there'd be nothing else to see.
Well, not quite. There were other words of course, handwritten words he'd been reading for years now, whispering at him once more from between the printed ones.
…cannot believe I was deceived for so long by your empty promises. You are not only a disgrace to VFD, Lemony, you are a…
Two hundred pages of them. He knew all the scratchings out, all the smudges, he'd memorised the way the tail of the y curved under when she wrote his name.
…hope that some day you will be found and brought to justice, of course, but other than that I can categorically state that I have no interest in…
The paper blurred, all the happy couples and new parents who he'd never met dissolving into a thin wash of grey.
…I have finally found someone who treats me like a human being…
and that just wasn't fair, because yes she thought him a traitor now but when had he ever mistreated her? She had meant everything to him, everything, she was an angel, a goddess, a creature of pure beauty, so how could…
"Sir? Are you all right?"
He looked up to see a waitress with a tray of empty coffee cups, frowning at him as if she needed to get a cloth and wipe him up. The tablecloth was covered in wet splotches and his hands were smeared with newsprint, he realised, folding the paper up and hastily shoving it into his briefcase.
He stood up and reached for his wallet, intending to pay for the coffee and wait for Bela outside. "I'm…" he began – I'm fine, it was meant to be, but the fine caught in his throat and came out as a gasping sob. The waitress took a step back, staring at him with wide brown eyes.
"I'm v-very happy for her," Lemony blurted, flinging a handful of coins on to the table and fleeing the café, almost colliding with Bela on the way out.
…moving in an aberrant – the word 'aberrant' here means 'very, very wrong, and causing much grief' – direction.
Lemony pulled the final page out of the typewriter and scanned it for any mistakes. His hands hurt, a dull, persistent ache that told him he'd been typing for longer than he thought. A glance at the clock confirmed that – it was three in the morning, and the floor around him was littered with crumpled paper and notebooks that had slid from his desk. He wasn't tired, not in the sense of wanting to sleep, his mind still racing with images of the children, Violet in her wedding dress and Sunny dangling in her cage and Klaus reading far into the night.
He added the page to the rest of the manuscript, tapping the sheets of paper gently to straighten them, and turned the whole pile over. There were the first words he'd written, months earlier – if you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. That wasn't how he'd planned to start the story, but it was better than any of the alternatives had been, and now he was almost finished. Not completely. There was one thing more. He picked up a fountain pen and hesitated, trying to decide what he should say.
To B- he began, and then paused, his hand suddenly trembling. The small, dusty room lurched around him, and he just had time to drop the pen back to the desk and bury his face in his arm before bursting into tears. This had happened to him twice already that night. The first time had only lasted ten minutes, but the second time he'd gone on crying for nearly an hour and ended up curled on the floor beneath his desk, sick and shaking with a burning pain in the back of his throat. Trying to stop was pointless, of course, he'd learned that a long time ago. The only way was to wait it out, even if it seemed you were never going to stop, because eventually you'd wear yourself out or fall asleep. Although sometimes in the dark days right after she'd been lost, he'd woken up still crying.
Aberrant. That was the right word. His life, her death, this plan he'd scraped together to explain the two, were all one long aberration. He had a sudden violent urge to rip the manuscript in half, throw what was left of it out of the window and throw what was left of himself out too. Two fewer aberrations in the world, but of course he'd never do such a thing, not really, because how could he avenge her death if he was dead himself?
The one photograph of her that wasn't smoke and ashes now was pinned to the wall above his desk. He looked up at it, brushing tears away with the back of a shaking hand. "You know I didn't mean that, dearest," he said. "I'd never abandon you again. You're still everything to me."
She made no reply, not even turning to face him, the grey blur of her body forever frozen in mid-turn. Lemony bowed his head. "Still everything," he repeated softly. "You stopped loving me, but I still love you."
To Beatrice – darling, dearest, dead. Two truths and the aberration. It was the smallest part of what he had to give her, but it was a start.