AWE spoilers. Character death, sort of.
Disclaimer: All characters are owned by the Walt Disney Company, not me.
Note: This is a prologue to "Three Bells and Cockleshells", though both may stand alone.
SOLE UNQUIET THING
by Rex Luscus
They were late. The servants had gone hours ago, leaving the children to run feral through the house. She was half-dressed, the governor was expecting them, and her husband was nowhere in sight. Three mincemeat pies were cooling on the sill and wine was mulling on the stove for tomorrow, but her hair would not stay piled on her head and her sleeves would not stay pinned. She pricked her finger and cursed, then sat down to powder her face.
"You would dazzle them in a canvas sack."
Elizabeth shrieked and sent cosmetics clattering across the vanity as she spun toward the voice that was not her husband's. In the corner, a bit of the darkness stirred, an escaped shadow hiding from its caster. She put her hand to her breast and laughed. "James. You startled me."
"I apologize." The shape stepped into the lamplight and became a sea-captain--stern and white-faced, but quite human. "One grows uncivilized after so long at sea."
She sank to her seat. "Today--I had forgotten it was today--"
"Yes, well--" there was a self-deprecating smile in his voice, "--ten years is rather a long time to remember an appointment." He cleared his throat, and asked with studied brightness, "They are well?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. Will is--well, he has a very flamboyant scar, but otherwise--James, not a day goes by that we aren't grateful--"
Another nervous cough. "And your children…I saw them earlier, getting into mischief--don't worry, they didn't see me. They are…very beautiful."
"I know." She smiled, embarrassed and savagely proud. Her love for her children was a force of nature, and she knew James could feel it across the room, knew he was envying it, the way he envied feeling warm. "Come," she said, talking her way through a stab of guilt, "we're due at the governor's house. He invites us every year--"
"Forgive me, I didn't mean to keep you."
"No! That's not what I meant. Perhaps--perhaps--"
His laugh was wet and hollow, like the echo in an empty hold, but it wasn't bitter. "I'd prefer not to spend my one day ashore amongst strangers."
"But--you're here, and it's Twelfth Night, and--" She stood, took a step closer. "We can't just leave you."
"Perhaps you'll allow me to haunt your house while you're out? There are no servants to terrify, at least."
"James." She moved closer, mindful of spooking him. He regarded being undead like being undressed--an embarrassing state to be caught in, especially by mixed company. "Have you learned any more about what might be done?"
He sighed, like the creaking of a taut brace. "There is nothing to be done. I believe technically if I secure the love of a woman who will be faithful unto death, I might have a chance, but there is quite a lot of damning fine print involved, and I'd just as soon not be bothered."
It was as close as his pride and propriety would ever let him get to a declaration. She felt sorry again for forgetting the date. For him, it had burned like a beacon down the long years, but for her, it had been covered over by anniversaries and appointments, birthdays and holidays, marriage and family and happiness and sickness and life. She wanted to scream, "Forget me," but there was nothing to drag him from the teeth of the past, nothing to beckon him forward. So she said, "Of course you can stay. Cook baked mincemeat pies--"
His eyes lit up, a spark leaping in a cold pit. "I didn't want to presume…"
She grabbed his icy hand and pulled him into the kitchen. "There's wine mulling on the stove, too…"
He lifted the lid off the merrily simmering pot and placed his nose in the path of the rising vapors. "Just so," he murmured with a beatific smile, then bent over a pie and inhaled deeply.
Elizabeth watched him take several more sniffs. "Can I cut you a wedge?"
"Mm?" He looked up. "Oh, no. It would be a waste, I'm afraid. But I can still enjoy the memory…"
It didn't seem right, rushing off to songs and dancing and food and cheer while he kept solitary company with his recollections of life. "Are you sure you'll be all right while we're out?"
"You needn't worry about me," he said cheerfully, gazing rapt around the comfortable little room.
Elizabeth hurried her family from the house. On the way, she told Will about their guest, and Will warned the children to behave around the melancholy stranger. But all warnings were chased from their minds by carols and candied fruit as soon as they arrived at the party. Whoever he was, this stranger didn't fit, funereal and monochrome amid the holiday color and light. Once they'd sung a carol or two more, Elizabeth forgot him too.
Hours later, they walked home with cheers and wassails dying behind them, one sleepy head tucked into Elizabeth's hip and Will bearing another on his shoulder. As they approached, the house seemed to hold up its hands and bid them stay away. Elizabeth thought of the dour figure somewhere inside, and pulled her family closer. At the end of the hall, the light in the kitchen burned like the mouth of a furnace. But when they stepped inside, she was instantly ashamed. The fire was banked high, roaring and bright, and James sat in a chair he had drawn up onto the hearth. His coat and hat were laid on the table, and his feet were propped on the grate. He was asleep.
The four of them watched him for a while, in hushed awe as though Father Christmas were dozing on their hearth. Then he stirred and lifted his head.
He beckoned to the children. They were tired and shy, but not afraid. "They're spoiled rotten," Elizabeth whispered, blushing, but James laughed and took two gifts from his pockets. Into Billy's hesitant hands, he put a miniature storm glass. "It warns not of storms but of lies and danger," he explained to the sleepy child. For Emily, he produced an orange pomander. "I have it on good authority that this will protect you from most heartache," he smiled, "though possibly not all."
The children leaned into their parents and turned their gifts over with curious fingers, not comprehending, but sensing that this stranger in their house belonged more to their storybooks than to the everyday world. Elizabeth stroked Emily's hair and bit her lip at the naked longing in James's eyes. "They like them," she said to him, smiling.
He never looked away from the children. "I was quite serious. Those baubles have--power. I do hate the word 'magic'." He shrugged. "I cannot keep them safe from all things, but there are advantages to knowing death personally."
After she'd put the children to bed, Elizabeth found James tasting the tea Will had made him. She sent Will off with a kiss and a whispered word, then sat down at the hearth and stretched out her feet, wriggling her stiff toes. "James, how can we help? There must be something. If it is as simple as finding a faithful woman, why then--"
James lifted a brow. "If you think that is simple, then you think far more highly of human nature than I."
"You know what I mean. Look--I know time doesn't pass for you the way it does for us, but--you must--you cannot hold onto--if it is going to keep you from doing what you must to break this curse, then--"
"Let us not talk of this," he sighed.
"But you have one day ashore, shouldn't you be finding a way to free yourself instead of--well, instead of--?"
"I would spend my one day with people I wish to see, not courting the sympathy of indifferent strangers." His voice was wounded. "Unless…"
"No!" A wave of regret hit her. "You are always welcome here. Whatever you wish of us is yours."
He smiled, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "When I took your husband's place at the helm of the Flying Dutchman, I laid no conditions. But if you perceive a debt, then you may repay it by sitting here with me while the night dies."
She shuddered at the hint of aeons in his voice, at the echo of his power over invisible things. "I will," she said, taking his hand. It was frozen, and she chafed it in her lap. "I won't say another word."
They sat and listened to the flames crackle.
"There is another thing," he said suddenly. "In the next ten years, should you decide to relocate, do try and leave word. My office gives me many extraordinary abilities, but unfortunately not the power to find a simple forwarding address…"
"Of course we will." She squeezed his hand. "We won't forget you."
He let out a breath as though he'd been anxiously holding it. "You might," he said. "You ought. I have no business intruding on this world. I only ask that you remember me for a day. Place a memento somewhere, not where you often see it, but often enough to serve. It's all I ask."
"That's easy," she said, thinking of the little iron box she kept in the floor under their bed. "Actually--would you like to see it?"
A look of distaste appeared on his face. "The less said about that unfortunate organ, the better. I have no idea how I lived with it all those years."
"It's far safer with you than it is with me," he said with strange heat.
Safe, and imprisoned, she thought. As long as his heart stayed with her, he would stay as he was, drifting like a bit of the past broken off in the stream of time. Yet she'd promised not to speak of it. "You know where to find it," she said.
"Someday, I hope you cast it away where it can never be found," he murmured.
The fire burned down to its coals. At last, she dozed in her chair. When she woke, light was pouring through the window, and seeing the empty chair beside her, she wondered if she'd dreamed him. But he was out in the garden, leaning against the pergola, stroking the green tendrils of a morning glory with obvious delight. Behind his head, the sun was turning the Caribbean Sea to hot gold.
"Usually for Epiphany we go to church," she said. "But if you'd rather we didn't--"
He smiled, looking like Bacchus in his pagan bower. Not at all the ghoulish Charon she'd feared he was, at least not today. "Churches sometimes react poorly to me," he said. "But all should be well if I make myself unseen."
So church was attended by a party of four that was secretly five. The holiday crowd pressed in, but Emily guarded the empty spot at the end of the pew while Billy watched his storm glass. The singing that morning was particularly sweet, Elizabeth thought, made especially so by the pleasure she could feel suffusing the gap at her side.
As they walked home, the children skipping a circle around their pet spot of ground, Elizabeth wondered again about the box under her bed. She didn't want to hold him hostage; but the choice was not up to her. When they got home, James took her hands and spun her around in front of the house. "Hymns!" he cried. "I never imagined I'd miss them so."
She watched his straight black silhouette bend to take the hands of two fearless children. Of course the children loved him; only adults knew enough to fear death. And only adults tried to make love answer their command. It would work itself out. He would return in ten years' time, then ten years after that, until one year he'd return and find her gone. Then perhaps he would finally get down to the business of breaking his curse. But there was no urgency for him. There was only how many carols could be sung and how much mulled wine could be drunk before the sun touched the sea and took him away. She hurried her family and their guest inside, and went to light the kitchen fire.