The Three-Handed Beast

Dustfinger pounded his fist against the wall, snarling in frustration. Resa had always accused him of having multiple personalities, and indeed, the different parts of him were now battling to the death against each other.

On the one hand, Meggie, beautiful Meggie—he remembered that night in her room, when he'd watched her sleep, those years ago. She was so beautiful, so peaceful, and so uncannily like her mother, in appearance. So, then, he'd felt something for her because he loved her mother. The overwhelming feeling of warmth that he'd often felt for her during their adventures had been for her mother, obviously.

But, then, on the other hand, it wasn't so obvious. He remembered the night Meggie had found out that he had betrayed her and her father to Capricorn and his cronies. She'd practically cursed him to the depths of hell, and if she hadn't used those exact words, well, he knew she'd felt like it. She'd expressed the hope that he would die, even that fire, his beloved friend, would be the cause of it. Her words, screamed at him as if she were mad, still stung him when he thought back today. But how had she been able to hurt him so badly? There were very few people in this world or his own who were capable of hurting him. Time and experience had taught him that if he wanted to survive, if he wanted to be all right, he had to be immune to the pain words were capable of inflicting. Especially when fired at him from such a pretty mouth.

Aghhh! Not again. He shook his head in frustration. There they were again, those little thoughts that popped up, unwelcome, into his head. But there you go. Yes, she did have a pretty mouth. And, yes, her words had hurt him. So some part of him couldn't help thinking that perhaps the feelings he had for her were just that. For her.

Indeed, she'd grown so lovely over these years that it almost hurt his eyes to look at her. He'd only seen her a precious few times, but since he'd finally been able to go back to his own world, Darius, the other reader, had kept his word, and read him back to this world once every year. He'd justified this insane longing to come back and visit—he never visited anywhere—by the fact that so many important, life-changing things had happened here, simply ending up here not the least among them, and so of course he would want to come back from time to time. But he knew that secretly he'd wanted to come back to see Resa, to catch a glimpse of her beautiful face, once, just once, every year. But as the years had passed, he couldn't help noticing that the sting he felt when he saw Resa with Silvertongue had steadily subsided, though it was never gone completely, and his attention had slowly turned towards Meggie. At seventeen, Meggie now almost outshone her mother in beauty, and Dustfinger couldn't help smiling when he thought of her fiery personality. So, now, he had to admit to himself, he wasn't sure which one he loved—the woman who had meant so much to him for so long, or the girl who was nearly a woman who had befriended him and cursed him so often it was hard to remember if they had parted on good terms or bad those years ago. For although he had seen Resa and Meggie each year, they hadn't seen him since he'd gone back to his own world five years before. He made sure they never saw him when he came back.

His thoughts now drifted to Meggie again. He couldn't help it. He really couldn't. The same images that so often accompanied his dreams flashed through his mind. Meggie's scared face, as a child, five years ago, as she'd bravely walked down the path that lead to the deserted village and the abandoned church where Capricorn held court. Meggie screaming at him, lashing out, when she realized that he'd betrayed her. Meggie's awed face when he'd given her a show of fire tricks in her aunt's backyard. Her smile, when he'd amused her. The last image he'd seen of her, as he'd disappeared back through the book that served as a portal to his world—her sad, tearful expression as he'd abandoned her, in essence betrayed her again. He still felt guilty for that. Especially now that he, or at least a part of him, wanted so badly to be with her. And the rest of the images drifted across his mind. All the times he'd seen her when he'd come back. Each year, as he'd seen her from some hiding place—Meggie walking and laughing with a friend, Meggie shopping with her mother, Meggie walking alone, lost in thought, once with Inkheart clutched tightly to her chest. And each year, older and more beautiful than ever.

The thought stung him. Because what chance did he have with her? At twenty-six, he was, after all, really too old for her. If he was being honest with himself, Resa, at thirty-five (she'd been a very young mother, having married Silvertongue at seventeen and had Meggie at eighteen), was really a little old for him. But neither he nor Resa looked their age, anyway. Resa and Meggie could easily pass for sisters, and Dustfinger himself, well…going back home after their ordeal with Capricorn had changed him dramatically. He looked twenty-one, easily, his blonde hair had that beautiful shine again, the curl was back, his face was no longer scruffy and his terrible scars had all but disappeared completely. Not that it mattered what he looked like. Meggie would still hate him, anyway, for leaving. If he decided he wanted to stay here with her now, he doubted that there was any way she would let him. After all, she knew him as well as anyone, and better than most, except perhaps her mother. He even felt that, somehow, she knew him better than her father did. She knew his draw to his own world, how tempting it would be for him to leave her again. But now, he knew it for sure, he could, he would, leave his world behind if she would let him stay here with her. He would forget Resa completely, except, of course, as a dear friend, and he would leave his world in the book that contained it…Right?

Dustfinger let out another snarl of frustration at his own stupidity and inability to commit to anything. Distractedly, he took out a match, struck it on the concrete, lit a ball of fire in midair, and played with it absentmindedly, letting it float between his hands, bounce across his fingers, careful never to let his fingers linger against the ball of fire for more than a second.

There was, of course, the third hand. Yes, his mind was such a twisted, screwed up phenomenon that there were at least three hands, instead of the typical one hand and the other hand, to any of his problems. The third hand on this one being the residual doubt that he could not, in fact, leave his world behind. Could he? Images of his beautiful home flashed through his head, replacing Meggie's haunting face. Lush green landscapes, friendly fairies, creatures of all kinds that only appear in the dreams of the most imaginative, and then only very rarely, and are never seen in the dreams of most.

Yes, he loved it. Even now, he missed it, and he had only been back in this world for three hours! He couldn't help it. It was part of him, both his home and the ever-present longing to return to it when he was not there. He never felt at peace here as he did there.

And so the three-handed beast raged on, although now having almost been whittled down to two-handed, if he could convince himself once and for all to let Resa go. She was clearly happily married, and if he could let go of her, perhaps he could enjoy a little more of the peace of mind that was so hard for him to come by these days. And this was how all of his problems were solved. Process of elimination. Saw off one hand and then deal with the other two. Eventually he would come to a decision.

So, once and for all, he made the resolute decision to let go of Resa, to allow her to live out her life with her husband, and he would no longer interfere or think of interfering. So now the two hands that remained were Meggie and home. Did he go home, as his very nature screamed out at him to do, or did he betray that instinct, betray that part of himself in the almost overpowering desire to stay and try and win Meggie? For there was no denying it. He truly was in love with her.

He sat in his hiding place, leaning against the concrete wall of some dilapidated building and hidden behind a bunch of bushes, for a moment longer, then, resolutely, pushed himself up off the ground, came out from behind the bushes, and walked across the small town square before him to the fountain in the center. Meggie sat on the edge of the fountain, seemingly unaware of the people buzzing around her, her head bent, reading a book that Dustfinger knew only too well. Really, she seemed to be gazing at the page, taking it in, rather than actually reading it.

As he drew nearer, she seemed to feel his presence and looked up, staring into eyes she had not looked into for five years. They stared at each other for a moment, and he waited with baited breath for what seemed like hours, until, finally, comprehension dawned across her striking features.

"Dustfinger?"

Sorry, no action or dialogue, but I think it sets the scene well for later. Please review! All comments appreciated.